"Caring Santa" Brings Tears Of Joy To Families Of Children With Special Needs

Dec 06, 2015, 20:50 ET from Gatepath

PALO ALTO, Calif., Dec. 6, 2015 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Windy Twelves and her six-year-old daughter Amber woke up on Sunday before sunrise and drove 140 miles to see "Caring Santa" at the Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto, CA. This Santa photo experience is not like any other -- It's an exclusive "Caring Santa" event at 127 Simon Malls nationwide, where each Santa is trained in advance at The Noerr Program's Santa University on how to interact with children who have special needs and disabilities. The training curriculum was developed by Gatepath, a founding partner of the Caring Santa program.

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As Windy waited with her daughter for their visit with Santa, she told staff working at the event that her daughter Amber has cerebral palsy and severe anxiety disorder. She was worried about how it might go. "Amber has a very hard time in new situations and environments, and the anticipation of moments like these can trigger a great deal of anxiety," Windy said.

Windy and her daughter were the last of 30 families to visit with Santa before the shopping center opened to the public.  When they approached the photo set, Santa began waving to Amber, remembering her from past years. Then, Windy's concern became a reality – Santa's greeting triggered a meltdown that seemed as if the magical moment wasn't going to happen. 

"After several minutes of watching Santa try several different things to soothe Amber, I honestly didn't think we were going to be successful at capturing her visit. But once he began rocking her back and forth and singing to her, Amber suddenly became quiet, looked into his eyes and began connecting with him," said Julia Ballantyne, the marketing director for Gatepath – the Bay Area based nonprofit that helped establish the Caring Santa program in partnership with Simon Malls and The Noerr Programs in 2011. "It was truly an unforgettable moment that brought tears to my eyes."

"Santa was incredibly patient, and caring with Amber. He didn't give up," Windy said, filled with emotion. 

Until now, families of children with special needs and their siblings could not participate in the time-honored tradition of taking a photo with Santa. "Children with special needs often have great difficulties when in stimulating environments, so families will generally try to avoid situations with large crowds, bright lights and loud noises," said Ballantyne.

Each mall makes minor modifications to create an environment set up to support the sensory, physical and development needs of the children, said Julie Kelly, director of marketing for the Stanford Shopping Center. "Our online reservation system is used to schedule time with Santa, so there are no long lines or extended waiting times.  One of the most cherished aspects of this event for families is that they can really take their time with Santa," Kelly said.  

"We receive hundreds of heartwarming photos and thank you notes from families each year, telling us how much they appreciate the fact that this event allows their child to enjoy a magical time with Santa, in a more relaxed environment," said Ruth Rosenquist of The Noerr Programs. "It also presents an opportunity for siblings to experience the joy and tradition of the holidays."

Since its inaugural event in 2011 with seven participating malls, the Caring Santa program continues to grow and is now providing photo experiences to more than 4,000 children in 127 malls across the US.  In 2014, Autism Speaks joined the partnership to help get the word out to families.  The Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism and the Special Olympics are among several organizations in the special needs community who also help promote Caring Santa. 

"We are very proud to see how this event has grown and how much happiness it brings to so many families," said Ballantyne. 

Gatepath, and its national online resource hub AbilityPath.org, have been providing support services and programs to children, youth and adults with special needs and developmental disabilities for 95 years in the Bay Area and across the US.  For more information about programs like Caring Santa, please go to www.gatepath.org or www.abilitypath.org.

About Gatepath

For more than 95 years, Gatepath has been "Turning Disabilities Into Possibilities." As one of the premier nonprofits in Silicon Valley, Gatepath provides inclusive programs for people with special needs at all stages and ages. These programs enable Gatepath to create opportunities of greater independence for children, youth, and adults with special needs and disabilities, empowering both individuals and families through diverse, individualized education and support services. Our dedicated staff encourage physical, developmental, and social well-being at all levels, including early intervention and therapy for children, inclusive preschools, support services for families, social communication programs for youth, vocational training for adults, and employment placement.

About AbilityPath.org

AbilityPath.org is Gatepath's online hub and special needs community for parents and professionals to learn, connect and live a more balanced life. The website combines social networking features with expert content from Gatepath's team of educators, parents, therapists and medical professionals.

About The Noerr Programs

From headquarters in scenic Colorado, The Noerr Programs provides turn-key digital event imaging services and productions including The Santa Photo Experience and Bunny Photo Experience for hundreds of clients, including regional shopping centers, retailers and the legendary Shops at The Plaza Hotel in New York City. Celebrating 23 years in business, every Noerr cast member invests their heart, soul and experience into representing the spirit and essence of the season, building lasting connections with guests through Noerr's innovative retail, social media and altruistic platforms. To learn more, visit www.NoerrPrograms.com or facebook.com/BeMerrySanta.

About Simon

Simon is a global leader in retail real estate ownership, management and development, and a S&P100 company (Simon Property Group, NYSE: SPG.) Our industry-leading retail properties and investments across North America, Europe and Asia provide shopping experiences for millions of consumers every day and generate billions in annual retail sales. 

Contact:   Julia Ballantyne, Gatepath

SOURCE Gatepath