Sensitive Santa event in Sanford held for kids with special needs

Sunday morning at the Seminole Towne Center, Santa came to greet an extra-special group of visitors. Children and teens with special needs were welcome at the Stanford shopping center for the annual Sensitive Santa event. "It's a great opportunity to see Santa in a very relaxing situation, not long lines, and especially very welcoming to the older kids," said Rita Mena, whose son has special needs.

At this event held before the mall opens, the house lights are low, the music is off, and the crowds are small. It's a calm, comforting atmosphere for young people who may be especially sensitive to lights and sound, like those who have autism. "No music in the mall," said Jennifer Lundberg, whose son has special needs, "Just a few people in the mall. All these things are really helpful when we're trying to do specialty things, like this."

This is the ninth year they've had the Sensitive Santa event at the Seminole Towne Center. Each year, they say it's gotten bigger and bigger. "This is almost like a family reunion to us," said Jamie Grover, executive director of the Special Needs Advocacy Program, "we have families that started out almost nine years ago that are still coming every year, so we get to see them every year. We have families come from Osceola and outlying areas every year to come to this event."

Organizers say next year they may hold two Sensitive Santa events in December. The event runs alongside a month-long fundraising drive, where they wrap presents at the mall. The kids say they love this special chance to see Santa. "I like it a lot!" said visitor Giorgio Mena, "I get to talk with Santa!"