1st Sensory Santa event a success

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 14, 2022

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LULING — Children with sensory challenges had a joyful Christmas experience at the inaugural Sensory Santa event hosted this past weekend by local nonprofit Caring Strategies.

More than 120 children, siblings, parents and grandparents from the River Region enjoyed an environment cultivated to help each child feel safe and secure without long lines or loud noises. According to Sandra O’Brien, director of Caring Strategies, none of it would have been possible without an outpouring of support from generous individuals and the small business community.

“Nonprofits like Caring Strategies are often in the habit of asking for big business donations, but at our event, the response came from individuals. The power of these random acts of kindness by parish individuals and small independent businesses that sent in donations large and small, as well as strangers and friends moved us so deeply,” O’Brien said. “These little acts of kindness truly touched our hearts in these times when the world could use more kindness. In St. Charles Parish we found it thanks to all of you, and that little bit of kindness goes a long way when we all come together and see what we can do.”

New Life Community Church in Luling donated its space, with members of the church providing many gifts for the children. The Ashley Bennett Dejean Foundation also provided more than 20 gifts for the children in attendance. Both “On Scene Santa” and Patrick Swindler were wonderfully gentle with the children. Sponsors for the event included United Way of St. Charles, Percle’s Jump N Fun, Mirror Pix, Primary Vet Care, Martial Arts Institute of Louisiana, Small World Daycare & Learning Center, Carrie Burbacher, Michelle Dupre and many others.

The Sensory Santa event was created for families of children with sensory processing disorders who would not typically have the opportunity to experience the cherished childhood tradition of taking photos with Santa. With a sensory-trained staff and a mission to provide life-changing resources to children with and without developmental disabilities or other special needs, Caring Strategies modified the traditional Santa Claus experience to decrease the likelihood that a child will feel over-stimulated.

Local parent Sarah Zafirau brought the idea to Caring Strategies after taking her son Henry, who has autism, to a similar event held in Chalmette last year.

The event was divided into four time slots with a limited number of families to keep everything running smoothly and prevent the space from becoming crowded. The church itself was divided into three zones with various Christmas activities.

In Zone One, families participated in indoor “reindeer games” based in occupational therapy. According to O’Brien, activities included carrying Santa’s bag and tossing snowballs. The first room also included a mirror photo booth where children could take time to be silly.

The second part of Zone One was a calming room with a darkened lighting, a weighted blanket, fluffy pillows, toys and soft, instrumental music. According to O’Brien, this space helped prepare children before they transitioned to the next room to take photos with Santa.

Zone Two included activities such as cookie decorating, arts and crafts, refreshments, and letters to Santa. Zone Three, located outside, allowed children to explore a jumping castle, sensory bins with different textures, and the church playground.

After the event, parents reached out to the Caring Strategies team to express their appreciation to the nonprofit for hosting the Sensory Santa event.

One parent, Amanda Shields, stated, “Thank y’all for hosting such a wonderful event for the community. The boys thoroughly enjoyed themselves and their time at the event.”

Caring Strategies Assistant Director Jennifer Burns, an early intervention therapist, hopes Sensory Santa will become a popular experience that will continue to grow for years to come.

“Our volunteers were the perfect little elves, and we are so grateful for them. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for all the help to turn the Sensory Santa idea into a reality,” Burns said. “These events are so needed for the children in our community, and it’s such a blessing to be part of the community that can make it happen.”

According to O’Brien, a similar sensory friendly event is in the works for the upcoming Easter holiday.

Caring Strategies serves hundreds of children and their families annually. In addition to hosting community events, the organization can also bring a sensory experience to area businesses.

To donate or volunteer, please email caringstrategies@aol.com or visit caringstrategies.net. More information on upcoming events can be found on the Caring Strategies Facebook page