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 Santa Visits Students with Special Needs

​Dozens of children with special needs got their picture with Santa Dec. 7, something that many families take for granted but that can be next to impossible for children with disabilities.

For almost 10 years, volunteers and employees with the East County Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) have held the SELPA Santa event, which allows the children more time to warm up to the jolly man in red and to avoid the lines and chaos at the malls.

“It’s awesome,” said Candace Schmitthenner, a mom from Santee who visited Santa with her husband and two children. “For us, the mall would be out of the question.”

Schmitthenner said it means a lot to the family to be able to get pictures with Santa because friends and family expect to see them at this time of the year.

Some of the children were eager to jump onto Santa’s lap and tell him about their holiday wish list. Those who required more coaxing got it from volunteer elves, who helped warm them up to the idea.

Rico Martinez said that he knows his two sons enjoy the visits even though they can’t express it.

The East County SELPA office was covered in holiday decorations, including snowmen, figurines, a tree and a fake fireplace. The 33 families who attended were able to hang out for as long as they wanted and take their photographs with them when they left.

The idea for the event came from the SELPA’s Community Advisory Committee. Parents on the committee said they wanted a holiday activity that children with special needs could fully participate in.

“As parents, we all want our kids to be the same as anyone else and to have the same experiences,” said Peter Thomas, a member of the committee who helps put together gift bags for the children each year. “This gives them the opportunity to take part in the holiday festivities.”

The volunteers who help with it have the experience needed to help the children with special needs feel at ease. Sometimes it takes several visits over the years before they feel comfortable enough to interact with Santa.

One girl with autism was able to sit on a chair next to Santa so her mom could get a picture this year. Last year, she only felt comfortable enough to wave at him from across the room.

"Sitting in a chair next to Santa may not seem like a big deal, but to us it was a huge celebration for her," said Heather DiFede, senior director of the East County SELPA.

Deborah Burke retired from the Lemon Grove School District two years ago but continues to help out as an elf when Santa visits because of how rewarding it is to see the families get pictures they may not have gotten otherwise.

“We have families who have cried because they have never gotten a picture with Santa,” she said.

The East County SELPA is made up of 11 school districts in the southeastern region of San Diego County. There are nearly 10,000 students in special education programs in those districts.