SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, Dec. 21, 2016 (Gephardt Daily) — For the average family, the hustling, bustling holiday season is a time of wonder and joy — an exciting, sentimental landscape filled with Christmas carolers, sparkling colored lights, and the ringing of Salvation Army bells.
But for families who have children who are sensory-challenged, navigating even the simplest holiday settings can prove overwhelming — for both kids and their parents.
Hence, the creation of the Quiet Santa concept — a low-impact approach to a beloved Christmas ritual — which allows families to meet with Santa Claus in a tranquil, non-threatening environment.
This year’s Quiet Santa events — hosted by local radio personalities Todd and Erin Collard — are taking place at the Leonardo at 209 E. 500 South in downtown Salt Lake City.
Heavy demand has led the addition of a third session, to be held Friday, Dec. 23 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., after two sessions filled up earlier this week.
Todd and Erin say the response is not that surprising given one in five kids in Utah has a sensory processing disorder.
Erin told Gephardt Daily that Quiet Santa was a movement started back East by parents who’d given up hope getting a picture with Santa and their child. She said she and Todd read about the idea four years ago and instantly wanted to try it.
“You’re a kiddo with autism, ADHD, allergies, or sensory processing disorders,” Erin said. “You’re getting dragged into a crowded mall by your mother who just wants one decent photo of you with Santa. You’re barraged with bright lights, moving escalators, water features, crowds, noise, blaring music and long lines. Then, you get to the Big Red Guy who booms at you like a cannon going off in the Astrodome: ‘What do you want for Christmas little guy?'”
She described exactly what occurs during a Quiet Santa visit.
“Kiddos come by appointment — no rush, no hurrying them along,” Erin said. “They can color, do a craft, just relax and get used to their surroundings. When they’re ready … they visit Quiet Santa and Mrs. Claus in another room, slightly lowered lights and very calm. The kiddo can do whatever is comfortable for them: sit on the floor, sit by Santa — some little ones are more at ease with Mrs. Claus.
“Santa’s gotten their name and some interests in advance, so they just talk about what matters to the child. Some kids are non-verbal, so Santa watches for cues to help communicate in other ways: by signing, showing pictures, maybe just smiling and humming a song. The kids are relaxed, mom gets a picture from our professional photographer, and no tears.”
Erin told Gephardt Daily about some of the highlights of Quiet Santa to her.
“One nonverbal little boy was wailing with terror, and his poor mom was crying,” she said. “We all left the little Santa house and stood outside in the 15 degree weather while Santa sat down on the floor and steadily edged closer. Todd, our Santa, naturally, somehow had one of our boy’s little cars in his pocket, so he began ‘driving’ the car around on the carpet. The little guy, who was clutching a couple of cars of his own, noticed and started edging over too.
“When we got the ‘all clear’ signal, Todd and the little boy were chatting together, zooming around with their cars. His mom started crying, and I immediately cried with her, of course. She told me it was the first time her son had spoken in three years. ALL THE FEELS.”
Erin said that ultimately, she and Todd would love to do more hours and other locations for Quiet Santa.
“We’re barely touching the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “It’s just too much for just us and the volunteers. This is an important point: everything is free — the photos, the crafts, the little gifts … everything. Special-needs parents are already broke, trust me.
“As for other ideas, we’d love to open a workshop where special needs kids can come to make gifts for their family — something meaningful and beautiful. Based on my sons, these kids feel SUCH pride in contributing — it’s really important to them. To offer their own gifts — something wonderful that they created — would be a huge boost for the whole family.”
Jeremy Crocker, who brings his son Caden to Quiet Santa every year, wrote this letter on Facebook to Todd and Erin:
“I’ve been typing and deleting over and over again because I’m not sure how to explain this experience in a way that fully conveys the emotions involved.
We have known Todd and Erin Collard for several years now and have witnessed first hand how kind and generous they are. When the Crazy Crocker Clan (that’s us) first encountered Quiet Santa our son was really struggling with basic social skills, sensory processing challenges and frequent meltdowns caused by a variety of factors. Going to see Santa seemed like an impossible task for us and that was a heartbreaking reality for Jen and I to face as parents.
“I have no shame or embarrassment in admitting that a few tears of joy fell from my eyes as I watched Caden’s first encounter with Quiet Santa four years ago. It was like all the anxiety and pent up emotion started to melt away from his body as soon as he stepped into that festive little cottage. His speech and vocabulary was still fairly limited but it didn’t matter. We were in a place of total acceptance and understanding with people who were willing to go to such great lengths to give our family a storybook Christmas experience. We gasped as our son willingly sat down next to Santa and peered up at him with those big blue eyes. That moment was a domino falling in a great chain reaction of hurdles that our amazing baby boy has kicked down over the years. I think back on all the great holiday experiences we’ve had since that day and I truly believe that they can all can be traced back to a handful of genuinely wonderful people in a small Christmas cottage.
“Thank you Quiet Santa.
“We are beyond grateful that you and all of your spectacular helpers have allowed us to come visit each holiday season since the first time our paths crossed. You have made such a huge impact in our lives and the lives of so many others that a simple “Thank You” seems grossly inadequate but it’s the best my tired mind can muster right now. I wish you nothing but the best this Christmas and I hope you’re OK with chocolate chip cookies since Caden has already decided that we need to bake some for you on Christmas Eve.
“Much love to the whole Quiet Santa Crew!”