MOUNTAIN TOP — For many children, sitting on Santa’s lap is a Christmastime rite of passage. But these days, it’s not a simple feat.
With long lines, harsh fluorescent lights, steep prices and the general hub-bub of a crowded mall, even the most patient child is often frazzled and overwhelmed by the time they reach St. Nick’s lap. Now, imagine that with a child who has special needs.
This familiar tale is what spawned the idea of “Sensitive Santa,” a sensory-friendly event intended for children with special needs, so they too can meet Mr. Claus in a low-pressure, soothing environment and experience Christmas cheer, comfortably.
“I have a special needs son, and we went to the mall to try and get his photo done, but it was way too overwhelming,” said Nicole Ash of Exeter, one of the creators of the event. “It was heartbreaking.”
Ash teamed up with her friend, Terry Tokach who is the owner of Mountain Yoga in Mountain Top, and in two short weeks, “Sensitive Santa” was born, and the yoga studio was transformed into a Santa photo studio.
“In two weeks it’s certainly come together,” beamed Ash. “This event is staffed entirely by volunteers and funded entirely through donations. Everyone here is giving of themselves to spread the joy of the season.”
The photographers, from LJM Photo Studio, donated their time to take the photos. And thanks to monetary donations from the community, each family will leave the event with one 5-by-7-inch printed photo of their child for free.
Families, upon entering the event, are greeted by two therapy dogs in a quiet, dimly lit environment. The adjoining dance studio, Encore School of Dance, also donated space for the event, creating a “waiting room” filled with activity stations ranging from arts and crafts to floor games to movies, and even a little “Children’s Yoga.”
“We want them to be as comfortable as possible and to stay engaged,” said Terry Tokach, the other creator of the event.
The children have no time limit while visiting Santa, giving them however much time they need to acclimate and get comfortable.
The studio was filled with calming aromatherapy scents and was very quiet, promoting an overwhelming sense of calm.
“We also have a behavioral therapist on hand, helping ease the children into the situation,” added Tokach.
Thanks to the popularity of “Sensitive Santa,” Tokach is also planning to host a once-a-month session of her YogaKids program, targeted specifically for children with special needs.
“It’s so important to reach out and have these kinds of programs,” Tokach added. “It’s the smallest thing we can do to make their lives even better.”
As for the event, everyone who attended agreed wholeheartedly – “Sensitive Santa” was a resounding success.
“I brought my five children here today,” said Nicole Mumie, of Berwick. Her daughter, Alexzandrya Toro, 8, was one of the children who met with Santa today. “When she met Santa…I have never heard her laugh like that before, ever.”
“Every child deserves to meet Santa,” smiled Ash. “We’re creating a safe space for them, adapting … this is what Christmas is all about. … It’s truly magical.”