Part 7 in our "12 Days of Christmas" series
GRAY, Tenn. (Dec. 31, 2014) – R.J. has beautiful curls and long eyelashes. His mom dressed him in an adorable outfit appropriate for his visit with Santa, including a red-and-green plaid shirt and matching sweater vest.
But unlike other 18-month-old boys, R.J. doesn’t run up to greet Santa and climb into his lap. Instead, he is in a special stroller that transports him and all of the medical equipment that keeps him alive, breathing and comfortable.
This is R.J.’s first visit with Santa, and it could very well be his last. The genetic disorder that necessitates all of the medical equipment and round-the-clock care by three nursing aides typically claims children within the first few years of life. Rather than holding annual celebrations of his birth as most families do, R.J.’s loved ones celebrate his birthday each month and count every minute he is with them as precious.
After the lengthy, painstaking process of transferring R.J. and his tangle of hoses, tubes, and wires from the stroller into Santa’s arms, the little boy's eyes dart from Santa’s face to that of the camera-wielding elf. R.J. smiles from time to time as he listens to Santa’s soft voice and watches all of the adults eager to document this special moment with their cameras, cell phones, eyes and minds.
“This is Christmas,” says the Rev. Christi Taylor, pastor at Fairview United Methodist Church and organizer of this Sensitive Santa event. “People thought I was crazy to have this at Gray (United Methodist Church) instead of somewhere in Johnson City, but God knew this is where we needed to be.”
R.J. and his family live near the church and are well known to the Rev. Lloyd Jones, the Gray UMC pastor who also portrays Santa for the day. “There are those magic fingers,” Jones says as R.J. wiggles the fingers of his right hand in greeting.
The family was thrilled to learn this event was planned for the Saturday before Christmas, Dec. 20. They wouldn’t dream of attempting to take R.J. to the mall or a busy retail store to visit Santa. The wait in line would be too long and tiring for R.J. and his caretakers, and the rush to get as many children on and off Santa’s lap would not allow for the extra time needed to make this happen. More importantly, the germs R.J. would be exposed to in such a public setting could be devastating to his fragile respiratory system.
On the day of the event, youth volunteers meet families at the front door of the church and escort them to the registration table where they receive a numbered ticket. Then they are taken to the activity room where more volunteers assist the children in craft and sensory activities. Children also have the opportunity to pet therapy dogs, Ebony and Lucy, and play with the Chick-fil-A Santa Cow. Volunteers provide healthy snacks and drinks.
When their number is called and it's their turn to meet Santa, each family is escorted into the sanctuary where Christmas music plays at a low volume.
Tracie is the first child to meet with Santa. She stands nearby, reluctant to sit with him. He does not not press the issue but quietly talks with her. When he asks what she wants for Christmas, she replies, “A coloring book.” When asked what her favorite crayon color is, she responds “black.”
Tracie eventually opens up a little more, even handing Santa a small notebook containing her wish list. Santa gives Tracie some small gifts to take home. By this time, she feels comfortable enough to sit next to him on the love seat to have her picture made.
The Rev. Scott Brady, pastor at Piney Flats United Methodist Church, brought his 11-year-old daughter to the event. Rylee has had 14 surgeries in her short life to combat a neurological disorder called Chiari Type I.
"She usually doesn’t see Santa at Christmas time because the whole experience is very overwhelming for her," Brady says.
Rylee starts off a little shy but warms up when she sees Ebony the dog at the registration desk. The fact that she doesn't have to sit on Santa’s lap is comforting for her. Sensitive Santa’s quiet demeanor includes allowing her to interact whenever she wants to. As she leaves the sanctuary, Rylee comments, "That wasn’t scary at all. I like him.”
At the registration desk, families provide contact information where they will receive photographs commemorating their child’s visit with Santa. About half are able to pay the suggested donation of $5 but all will receive the photos, regardless of their ability to pay. This event raises $100 for the Wonderfully Made Grant Fund. However, raising money is not the focus of the day: It's all about the kids.
The sewing group at Sulphur Springs United Methodist Church made stuffed bears for Santa to give each child. This was a huge undertaking right before Christmas and in the midst of other projects, and Rev. Christi Taylor expressed gratitude for their willingness to help.
“When they asked how many I needed and I told them 50, their eyes got huge,” she said. “But I told them we are in this together, and I could do anything they needed other than sew.”
She immediately began cutting scraps of soft fleece into bear shapes, and within a week 65 bears were completed. The joy in each child’s face as they received this small gift made it all worthwhile.
The Wonderfully Made team is already planning a similar event for Easter, and Rev. Jones has agreed to play the Easter Bunny. You can learn more about Wonderfully Made at www.wonderfullymadegrant.com.
Betty Barton is administrative assistant in the Johnson City District office.