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Santa Claus Visits Special-Needs Children

(Photo by Olivia Richard - KJZZ)
With the help of the Positive Network Alliance, Santa brings the perks of the North Pole to the children of Phoenix one school at a time.

It's that time of year again, where it seems you can't go anywhere without hearing the unmistakable sounds of Christmas. Malls are crowded, stores are packed, and kids are lining up to meet one special man.

For most kids, grabbing a picture with Old St. Nick is something that happens every holiday season with a simple trip to the mall.

But for some children with special needs, seeing Santa in a noisy, crowded mall is more of an emotional nightmare.

"A lot of kids that have behavioral, emotional or social needs struggle with large crowds, struggle with being in noises that are really loud that may cause them to feel really upset or long lines for kids that may not understand why they have to wait their turn," said Vanessa Monroe, a special-needs kindergarten teacher at Ironwood Elementary School.

So, if the children can't make it see Santa, Santa makes a special trip to see them.

During the holiday season he goes by Santa Claus, and the rest of the year he is flying under the radar as child-behavioral therapist Patrick de Haan.
The Santa with a mster's degree in professional counseling, found children with developmental delays often need a slower introduction to St. Nick.

For instance, de Haan said, a child with autism or sensory delay will take some time before getting close to Santa Claus.

"Maybe the first pic we take they're 10 feet away and then later on they are 6 feet away and then they're 3 feet away and then they're sitting on my lap," de Haan said. “And the teachers going they never did that before. Well you just have to progressively get them to that point.”

And sometimes it takes a little longer.

"They’ll say, ‘Well I don't know Santa, I shake a lot. I don't know if you want me to sit on your lap,'" de Haan said. "I say, 'I shake a lot too,' and then we will shake together.”

With a little help, de Haan brings presents for every child. But perhaps the biggest gift he can give is understanding.
"We need somebody to just say 'hey, you're OK, we're OK,' and suddenly you've got a bond and they're not alone," de Haan explained. "It's that simple."

Olivia Riçhard is an assistant producer for The Show.