"Quiet Santas" take wishes from kids with special needs

2012 marked first event of its kind in Madison area

Published On: Dec 16 2012 03:40:28 AM CST   Updated On: Dec 16 2012 03:50:36 AM CST
MADISON, Wis. -

Remember when you were young and you wanted something for the holidays?

And you thought that telling the Santa at the mall could somehow make your wish come true?

One Madison area family can't do that. But this year they were able to do something just as special instead.

Dena Sekel's family is just like yours, with holiday traditions she wouldn't dream of skipping.

"It's just a special experience," said Sekel. "I remember going to see Santa when I was a kid. It's always been part of Christmas."

Dena and her husband Russ have never been able to share that experience with 5-year-old Avery and 3-year-old William.

"William was diagnosed on the autism spectrum about a year ago," remembers Dena.

For kids like William, the stimulation of lights and crowds and noise – three aspects inherent of just about every shopping mall, especially at holiday time – is simply too much.

"For them to not be able to have that," said Dena, "they're just missing out."

But this year, the Sekels' holiday wish has already come true.

"We were like, we have to go to this, this is our one chance to actually go," said Dena.

That chance came when they heard of an event in Madison that offered a quieter visit with Santa, particularly for kids with special needs.

That quieter visit was with a Santa Helper named Jim Sheldon, one of many helpers that take requests at malls while the real Santa is busy at the North Pole.

"Mall Santas and kids with sensory issues? That's a mess," said Sheldon.

Sheldon is especially good for this role.

"Yeah, my son has autism," reveals Sheldon.

Sheldon's sister helped to get Sheldon involved in this unique role. 

"It's magic, right? Seeing Santa is magic," said Julie Sheldon. "And I don't think children on the spectrum or others with special needs get that opportunity. So they may see it, they may hear it, but they don't know what it's about. So if we can give them that moment, then we've reached our goal."

For families like the Sekels, the Sheldons can consider that goal reached.

"I don't even know how to fully explain it," remarked Dena Sekel. "It's Santa!"

Organizer Julie Sheldon said 2012 marked the first "quiet Santa" event of its kind in the Madison area.

She wants to bring it back again next year, with even more families and more of Santa's helpers on hand.