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 SELPA Santa Is Just Right for Kids with Special Needs

More than 30 East County children turned out recently for a special Santa visit hosted by the San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE). 

The annual SELPA Santa event gives families with children with special needs an alternative to visiting Santa at a noisy mall, and gives children a relaxed setting and extra time to share their Christmas wish list with very patient Santa.  

The event, held every December at the East County Regional Education Center in El Cajon, is led by the team behind SDCOE's East County Special Education Local Plan Area, or SELPA, which serves 11 local school districts and the special-needs families within them. SELPA team members recall the Santa event going back as far as 2001.

"It is so humbling to be able to provide the annual SELPA Santa event to our families," said Heather DiFede, senior director of the East County SELPA. "As families return year after year, their appreciation is evident in the smiles on their faces as they walk away with a holiday picture, which for some of our families it is a first. Thanks to our volunteer elves, we have been able to host this event for more than a dozen years, which we hope to be able to continue for years to come!"

The East County SELPA team fills the visiting room with festive Christmas decorations, and the noise and lighting levels are low. The children visiting may have autism, sensory disorders, or hearing or vision loss. The children, who can take as much time with Santa as they need, receive their photo with Santa in minutes.

East County SELPA volunteers included retired Lemon Grove teacher Kevin Irvin, who has taken on the role of Santa for years; Lemon Grove special education teacher Amanda Kipnis, who was the photographer; members of Girl Scout Troops 6018 and 6371; SDCOE employees Fred Fox, Donna Atlas, and Cyndi Hawkes; and Hawkes' daughters Elyse and Lauren of Granite Hills High School.

DiFede said some of the donated decorations used in the SELPA Santa event over the years are now well-worn, so the team is looking for a few Christmas decorations to replace them, particularly a tree skirt and a tree topper. The decorations can be gently used or new, and can be sent to the East County SELPA at 924 E. Main St., El Cajon 92021.