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Special needs children meet with ‘Caring Santa’ at mall

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Published:   |   Updated: December 13, 2013 at 11:34 AM

PORT RICHEY — For Justin Shaw, the magic of seeing Santa Claus in person is the highlight of the Christmas season. Every year, his family takes an outing to a nearby mall or event where the jolly elf himself asks children and fun-loving adults what they want for Christmas.

This year, the visit was even more special as Gulf View Square held its inaugural Caring Santa event last Sunday, December 8. For an hour in the morning, just as the mall first opened, families that have children with special needs were invited into a subdued environment to visit the Simon Santa Photo Experience.

“Caring Santa was started with a desire to reach out to this community,” said Ruth Rosenquist, a spokesperson for Noerr Programs. “Our event focuses on all spectrums of disabilities.”

Many steps are taken to reduce sensory triggers, creating a more comforting environment for the children’s magical visit with Santa. This environment includes turning off or lowering in-mall music, dimming lights, shutting down mall fountains and eliminating queue lines through a numbering system. Guests enjoyed free refreshments until their number was called from the set.

Children can then take their photo with Santa after discussing their wish list with him.

“We were really excited,” Justin’s mom, Stephanie Shaw, said about the event. “You don’t want to jump ahead of everybody because your son is in a wheelchair but it’s hard for them to sit that long.”

Justin, who uses a wheelchair guided by his parents to get around, has a long process to get ready each morning that includes breathing treatments, medications and getting into the wheelchair. While Stephanie emphasized that the family doesn’t expect special treatment, standing in long lines can be difficult for Justin, who has issues with breathing and pain.

Caring Santa began three years ago in just a handful of malls. Now more than 100 Simon regional malls participate and Heather Deming, set manager for the Port Richey mall’s Santa Photo Experience, hopes to bring it back every year for years to come.

“Every year we try to take the time with the special needs kids that they need,” Deming said. “I know as the parent of a special needs child myself, there are so many distractions when it comes to seeing Santa. Now we can offer them the experience they deserve. I’m excited about this event.”

Santa was especially tender with the children who sat on his lap or posed nearby nearby. He offered comforting pats on the shoulder or back and never stopped smiling.

“Sending in a list or email is so impersonal when they can sit and talk with you,” Santa said. “Children overcome their skepticism over whether Santa saw their list and heard their wish and to see the smile on their faces brings joy to my heart.”

This year, Justin asked for tickets to see Jimmy Buffett live. He sings along to his songs on CD and his parents have taken him to Key West but they hope to snag Buffett tickets for their little parrot head if he comes back to tour Florida.

The Shaws’ only disappointment with the event was the lack of attendees. Only a handful of families took advantage of the event Sunday morning and the Shaws attribute it to not advertising it far enough in advance. Families with children who have special needs can’t just “get in the car and go,” said Justin’s father, Mike Shaw, and hearing about the event last minute might mean they can’t attend.

Justin’s family was only alerted a couple days before the event through a flier from their son’s school.

“We hope they do this every year and aren’t discouraged by the lack of attendance,” Stephanie said.

Caring Santa is owned by Simon Property Group, which operates Gulf View Square, and is implemented with input from AbilityPath.org. For more information visit www.caringsanta.com.

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