It takes a special kind of educator to arrange a Santa visit that’s just right for special-needs families. Heather DiFede and her San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE) team in El Cajon have been doing just that for more than a decade with “SELPA Santa.”
Nearly 200 parents and children -- an unprecedented turnout -- attended the 11th annual event recently at the East County Regional Education Center. DiFede is the senior director of the East County Special Education Local Plan Area, or SELPA, which serves 11 local school districts and the special-needs families within them.
“We are just thrilled that so many students and families within the community took advantage of this event,” DiFede said. “It is something we are truly proud of.”
The SELPA Santa event gives such families an alternative to visiting Santa at a mall, where the crowds, noise, and brightness can make a traditional holiday experience difficult for some children with disabilities.
The East County SELPA team was assisted by several volunteers, including Lemon Grove teachers Kevin Irvin, who played Santa, and Amanda Kipnis, who was the photographer. Members of East County Girl Scout Troops 6731 and 6018 also played a big role in the event, leading craft activities, assisting Kipnis, and printing photos.
DiFede and her team have designed a Santa experience that is low key and not overwhelming for children who need extra time to adjust to the environment and to Santa.
“We provide the opportunity for children to go through this at their own pace,” she said, adding that their volunteers have experience with children with disabilities.
The room is filled with festive Christmas decorations, and the noise and lighting levels are just right. The children visiting may have autism, sensory disorders, or be hearing or visually impaired. They take as much time with Santa as they need. The children receive their photo with Santa in minutes, inserted in a keepsake paper frame.