Special Fellow

Special Fellow

Special Fellow for Kids with Special Needs

Michelle Matthews
Writing for AL. Com

Sensory Friendly Santa Bends Ear; Spreads Cheer

Joshua Sarnowski, 7 marched right up. He wanted to make sure Santa knew what he wanted for Christmas:  cars and monster trucks.  After smiling for a photo, Santa leaned over and whispered, "Be a good boy, and I'll come see you."  Joshua raced back to his parents and literally hopped our of the room in excitement.

If not for this Santa appearing at Goodwill Easter Seals of the Gulf Coast, Joshua wouldn't have been able to deliver his message in person.  "He has sensory problems due to multiple disabilities," said his mother, Alli Sarnowski, so going to a big mall or super-store is out of the question.

"We don't do well with crowds", she said.

The sensor-friendly Santa experience for children with physical or emotional special needs was sponsored by Goodwill Easter Seals, Santa America and Epsilon Sigma Alpha, a service organization whose local members sew thousands of 'hugs' for Santa America.  After each visit with Santa, each child receives a 'hug' - a soft fleece scarf with mittens at each end, so that Children can give themselves a hug whenever the'd like, to feel Santa's love.

Ernest Berger of Daphne, better known as Santa Ernest, founded Santa America in 2003.  Today, it has volunteer Santas in 35 states and six countries, he said, who are available all 365 days a year.  The Santa are often called upon year-round for children in hospice care.

Santa America doesn't require its Santas to have any particular religious affiliation. What they need is to be "emotionally committed to unconditionally loving children", Berger said.  The organization includes Santas who are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and agnostic, he said - but they share a mission of 'bringing love, hope and joy'.

Most of them have natural beards, "But it's not about the hair on your face, it's about the love in your heart," Berger said.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, children and their parents came to the Goodwill Easter Seals Gordon Smith campus at intervals, following paper peppermints on the floor to a kitchen ares for refreshments, on to a room where they could color and make crafts, and finally on to Santa Ernest.  The kids didn't have to wait in line, and they could have as much time as they wanted with Santa Ernest.

"Its plain by design," Berger said of the setting and his costume.  "There are no lights, and it's as monochromatic as possible.  For some of these youngsters, this is their first photo with Santa, or the family's first photo."

Berger does have his own beard, which matches his white hare and bushy white eyebrows.  As two brothers sat in his lap, he encouraged them to be "official beard testers to make sure it is real" by gently tugging it.  Is red wool Santa suit had no buttons or belt; he didn't wear a hat or glasses.  On his feet, he wore not boots, but authentic replicas of 14th century men's shoes, made in Estonia.  He didn't offer children any "ho-ho-ho's."  Instead, he spoke to them in a gentle voice.

A little girl in braids sat close and stared at Santa.  "You got magic?" she asked.  "Yes I got you in my lap, didn't I?" Santa replied.

Christoper Baxter, 19, who has autism, was all business with his visit.  He brought a hand-written gift list, which included Guardian of the Galaxy figures.

"This was really his only chance to see Santa," said his mother, Elaine Baster.

"He loves Santa Claus" said his dad, J.D. Baxter.

And the feeling was mutual for Santa Ernest, a man who has realize his calling in life.  "The funny thing is," he said, 'the more love we give, the more we receive.  It just comes washing over you.  I'm honored to be here.  It's my privilege to be here."

Michelle Matthews, Author
Press Register Article

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