Dozens of East County families turned out Saturday for a special Santa visit hosted by the San Diego County Office of Education.
The annual "SELPA Santa" event gives special-needs families an alternative to visiting Santa at a noisy, bright, and crowded mall. Some 56 children got the chance to share their Christmas wish list with Santa at the 10th annual event at the East County Regional Education Center.
"It's so relaxing, we don't have to stress out. He knows everyone," said Tiffany Heath, whose 7-year-old son, Apollo, has attended SELPA Santa for four years.
The event is organized by the East County Special Education Local Plan Area, or SELPA, which serves 11 local school districts. Fliers in English, Spanish and Arabic about the event are sent to local special education teachers. Volunteers include SDCOE employees, Lemon Grove teachers, and Girl Scout Troop 6018 from Hillsdale Middle School.
"We are thankful for our volunteers who make this event happen for our students," said Heather DiFede, senior director of East County SELPA. "Each family is very appreciative of the event to make a holiday memory, and we are happy to make this happen for them."
Children and families were welcomed into a conference room festively decorated for Christmas. Soft music plays from a Yule log scene on a flat-screen TV. The noise level and lighting are just right for these children, who may have sensory disorders, autism, or be visually or hearing impaired.
Once the visit with Santa is complete, children received candy canes and a small stuffed seasonal toy, donations from longtime volunteer Peter Thomas and son Blake of Mount Helix, who've been attending and volunteering since the beginning.
Children and parents received their photo with Santa printed in minutes and inserted in a festive paper frame. The keepsakes brought immediate smiles and looks of awe to big and little faces. Some parents marveled at images of their son or daughter smiling for the camera.
Why does a Santa visit matter? "You have this vision of what's important during the holidays," DiFede said. "For some families with children with disabilities, experiences aren't always what they envisioned for parenthood. This opportunity gives some sense of normalcy."
Latoya Cantu of Lemon Grove brought her sons Toby, 8, and Lennon, 11, this year. Both boys have sensory issues, Cantu said. She has taken her sons to a mall Santa visit in the past, but she said this was the most successful.
"It was very calming, it was very organized, it was fun," Cantu said. "It's just very intimate, quiet and soothing. I really like how they give you time with Santa. They really hit the target for sensory issues."
Some children felt so at home that they stuck around long past their turn with Santa. Five-year-old Caden Hope was especially chatty when Santa had a free moment, asking about the reindeer and declaring that he would like Santa to come home with him to stay.
Among the volunteers were Lemon Grove teachers Mykie Evans, Amanda Kipnis, and longtime Santa, Kevin Irvin. Several of the children were thrilled to see their teachers, like Apollo, who didn't want to let go of Evans.
"Every year, he gets more into it," Heath said. "It's the only place I can get him to take a picture. … The option to come here, it's so beneficial. You get to see the same people. It's so comfortable for them."
Photo: Caden Hope, 5, visited Santa on Saturday (top) and viewed his picture.