Laura Frazier/Raspberry Lane Pho
Visiting Santa can be loud and scary, but not at Quiet Santa, where there are hugs all around.
Jim Sheldon just wanted his son to sit on Santa’s lap. But Sheldon could not imagine bringing his child, who has autism, to the hectic mall for this holiday tradition.
Then he read about a program out east that offered a toned-down Santa for children with autism and other special needs and immediately set to organizing a similar program in Madison. With the help of his sister, Julie, Sheldon launched Quiet Santa in 2012, serving 20 children in a designated space at Meriter Hospital.
“Every year we’ve nearly doubled the number of families we’ve seen,” says Sheldon. The group soon outgrew the space at Meriter; they currently hold Quiet Santa over two days at the Center for Families, 2120 Fordem Ave.
The event is free, thanks to an all-volunteer staff and the sponsorship of agencies including Wisconsin Early Autism Project and the Autism Society of South Central Wisconsin, several businesses and private donations.
This year’s Quiet Santa is slated for Dec. 3 and 4 and is open to any family with a child who has special needs; siblings are included. Families are required to register in advance to help ensure there’s time for everyone to see Santa.
There are no set appointment times, though. “With something like this, you don’t know how long it’s going to take the child to warm up to Santa,” says Sheldon. “We don’t put time limits on anything.”
Snacks, beverages and activities are set up in a separate waiting room for families to pass the time until it’s their turn. Then each family is brought into a quiet, low-key room to meet Santa. Sheldon and another volunteer take turns donning the red suit; both are experienced working with special needs children.
A volunteer photographer who specializes in photographing children with special needs is also on hand to commemorate the meeting. At the end, every child is given a small gift bag from Santa.
It’s the chance of a lifetime — a chance that families with kids who have autism don’t usually get to enjoy. Sheldon says he tears up when he hears some of the testimonials from parents, saying how helpful this event has been, or that it was the first time their kid smiled or gave a high-five.
Quiet Santa is close to capacity and won’t be able to expand without more donations and volunteers. Sheldon hopes that other organizations in the area might start offering a similar program.
More information can be found at quietsanta.com. Interested families should RSVP (with number of children and choice of date) to firstname.lastname@example.org.