SELMA – If you’ve ever waited in a long line for your children to sit with Santa and tell him what they’d like for Christmas, you realize it’s already an experience that requires a great deal of patience. If you have a child with special needs, waiting in that long line may just be too taxing to make that experience a reality.
In order to give families with special needs children a more relaxed way to talk to St. Nick, Exceptional Sports for Youth with Needs organized their first Breakfast with Santa on Dec. 15. Organizers said it took many volunteers, but the effort was worth it to see the families enjoying a pancake breakfast, making ornaments and taking turns talking to Santa without being rushed, stared at or made to feel anxious.
Jeannette Ontiveros, Charlotte Beggs and Roxanne Marshall first dreamed up the idea to start a non-profit to provide sporting activities for special needs children in the community. It’s grown to include holiday-related events, too.
“This is what having this day means to me,” Ontiveros said of this first Christmas event. “It’s about the children and having fun,” she said as one of the children came up to thank her for the new doll she picked out. “Seeing the smiles on the children’s faces is priceless.”
At least 260 families attended this event and Ontiveros said she was grateful for all the volunteers who helped, from the Selma High students in Selma Cheer and Skills Club to Max’s Brunch House who catered the breakfast.
“We wanted to provide our exceptional kids a warm, sensitive atmosphere where they could take more time if they needed with Santa. Also, in the spirit of Christmas giving, we wanted to see their smiles as they left with a bunch of goodies and a gift.”
At times, the children would visit with Santa in spurts and come back for short, quick smiles. At other times, they’d linger and have their picture taken with their entire family by Yvonne Hernandez.
After breakfast, they could make an ornament at the craft table and then pick out a toy at table with a variety of gifts. Selma High students helped the children at both of these areas and said it was like having a group of younger siblings or cousins to play with.
Selma High senior Penelope Valle was among high school students helping the children make ornaments.
“My little brother’s not really into scrapbooking and doing bracelets so I usually do this by myself. Today, I get to help little kids make Christmas ornaments and do what they want to do.”
Stephanie Drake watched as her son, Jeremiah Drake, layered the self-sticking manger ornament together. She said they used to drive up to Valley Children’s Hospital to take part in their adaptive sports, but the long drive made it difficult.
“To attend those events, it’s a long day from the morning to the evening. This is better because he’s with the kids he goes to school with. It’s our community and people we know.”
Alice Honorato was just finishing up breakfast with her children, Vianna, 8, Roman, 10 and Baya, 12. They, like the majority of those in attendance, were wearing comfy pajamas to the breakfast. She said having such events makes ESYN feel more tight-knit than just a sports team.
“It makes it more like a family thing. You get to know the families and socialize in this setting where it might get a little challenging with these special guys. But at the same time, it’s rewarding to just be able to be with others and share some of those struggles and have fun times. Here, you don’t have to apologize 100 times.”
They’ve taken part in ESYN’s soccer and bowling leagues and went to a Halloween party but haven’t tried the softball yet. Roman hadn’t had a chance to sit with Santa just yet that morning, but he has before.
“Sometimes, it’s a little overwhelming,” Honorato said. “They’re either for it or against it. It does go okay, but it takes a little while to warm up.”
It’s the same thing for Anamaria Renteria, 7, who is “kind of shy,” Tomas Renteria said. Even though Anamaria can speak in both English and Spanish, she often uses sign language to communicate. “But she can even sing songs. She likes to sing,” he said.
This was the second time she’s sat with Santa, but she’s still a little hesitant, he said.
“She gets a long better with women. It’s just one of those things,” he said of her hesitancy.” When they do such activities with other families in ESYN, at least everyone there understands each other, Renteria said. “If you go to a regular event, sometimes other kids will yell. Here, they’re not watching us all the time.”
Santa (Fresno’s Barry Alford) said he’s learned enough sign language to communicate with the children as he’s portrayed Santa for other special needs groups such as the Downs Syndrome Group of Central California.
“A lot of them communicate with sign language as they’re less verbal. It’s kind of a relief for them and if you can communicate with them, you’ll see a smile on their face. It’s good for us to get into their world.”
Nancy Butterick, a special education teacher at Eric White Elementary, and Esther Martinez, a retired Abraham Lincoln cafeteria manager, helped served breakfast that morning.
Butterick said she’s impressed by all the activities ESYN puts on for the children and hopes the group is able to build understanding with the general public, especially when it comes to how demanding it can be for parents of children with special needs.
“When you’re in a restaurant and children are yelling, people get upset but they don’t know the circumstances of the families. Others need to understand that may be a special needs person. As a society, we need to be more understanding and have empathy for those parents. Maybe once in a while tell them they’re doing a great job. That’s all parents need.”