LEOMINSTER — Having a place to visit with Santa that was sensory friendly for her son meant the world to Patty O’Keefe.
“He has sensory processing disorder so it can get overwhelming with the crowds at the mall to see Santa,” she said of Cole, her 5-year-old, at the Leominster Special Education Parent Advisory Council Breakfast with Santa held at City Hall last weekend.
O’Keefe brought her two sons to the event organized and run by SEPAC board members including President Angela Thomas, Technology Director Shannon LeClair, and Secretary Amy Katon that had a jovial yet calm vibe.
Nine-year-old city resident Zephyr Roy sat for a picture with Santa with a smile on his face. He came with his father, who said he had heard about the gathering from SEPAC and that they were enjoying it.
Godwill Karngon brought his daughter Kirsten, 4, and son Ethan, 3. Karngon, who is originally from Cameroon, a county in Central Africa, has lived in Leominster since 2013 and his daughter attends Project Apples/Leominster CFCE playgroups and programs.
“They loved seeing Santa and getting a picture with him,” he said of his kids, who wore sweaters that matched his.
LeClair said they were busy early on and steady throughout the morning, with dozens of families stopping by the auditorium for a meet and greet and photos with Santa, crafts and creative play with Project Apples/Leominster CFCE, and sensory fun including water tables. A table was set up with baked goods, juice boxes, water bottles, fruit salad, coffee and more for the attendees.
“We have tried to take into consideration everyone’s needs,” LeClair said at the occasion. “Lower lighting, we tried to be aware of how many families were here at time, kept it quieter, and everything in to go containers in case anyone needs to leave quickly.”
Leominster Public Library Children’s Library Associate Renee Wheeler set up a cozy reading nook with bean bags and other soft, comfy seating where she read stories and kids could read independently, a spot where children could “calm down and enjoy a story and sit,” LeClair said.
“We had a lot of fun,” Wheeler said, adding that one young woman read the entire contents of the bin of books she brought with her from the library.
Project Apples Program Coordinator Lisa Novelli said they were happy to partner with Leominster SEPAC “in their mission to support special needs families.”
“The Breakfast with Santa event was meaningful and allowed us to contribute sensory-based activities to children and families who have extra demands on their lives,” Novelli said. “It was wonderful to see many smiles on the children’s faces and enjoy the many activities offered at the event and see the community come together to offer a welcoming holiday environment for these special families. Our CFCE, funded by the Department of Early Education & Care, is taking steps to be more inclusive, and we follow the Massachusetts Strengthening Partnership Frameworks to help build genuine relationships between children, families, and the community.”
City Hall was bustling that day, with people taking wedding photos on the steps in the lobby and visitors coming by to check out the Festival of Trees — and yet inside the auditorium, an air of serenity prevailed.
“This was fantastic,” O’Keefe said to LeClair as she and her sons were leaving.
SEPAC is a group of volunteer parents of special education students in Leominster who help support families through workshops, resources, and events. LeClair said Breakfast with Santa “was strictly for families of folks with disabilities or with specific circumstances that makes it impossible to access typical winter events.”
She said it was truly a collaborative community effort, with SEPAC board members, school community members, library staff, Project Apples, and many more pitching in to help make it a success.
“Angela and I worked tirelessly to put this together for the special education kids in Leominster,” LeClair shared. “We are also fortunate to have the support of our other board members as well as volunteers, the Leominster Public Library, etc.”
In addition, several members of Leominster Fire Department including Leominster Fire Fighters Local 1841 IAFF President Ryan Young volunteered to help set up and break down the event including moving all the tables.
“I really feel the event went amazing,” LeClair said, adding that the SEPAC board “was so fortunate to have ample help during the planning process, set up and clean up, and the event itself, that really made everything seamless.”
“We are beyond grateful to countless volunteers as well as the staff at city hall, the mayor’s office, the fire department, the Leominster library, the Leominster Special Education Department, and Project Apples for all their help,” she said. “We were also able to offer an abundance of breakfast options thanks to parent volunteers as well as donations from Chartwells, Aroma Joe’s Coffee, and Robust Café.
“We are so fortunate for the outpouring of support,” LeClair continued with gratitude in her voice. “It’s definitely not a solo project. Without all the help, we would not have been able to do it.”
Her autistic son Cameron came by before everyone else got there and then went to his grandmother’s so his mom could help facilitate the inaugural event that she hopes will become an annual tradition.
“You know your child’s needs,” LeClair said of her son coming early. “We are hoping this is the first of many and that we can get more of the schools involved and grow the community. We self-isolate sometimes because it’s all too much.”
LeClair is also involved in Best Buddies, the world’s largest organization dedicated to ending the social, physical, and economic isolation of the 200 million people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She organized a Best Buddies Friendship Walk back in June at Doyle Conservation that raised $2,371 for the nonprofit organization, which she also hopes will become an annual tradition, and started a blog and Facebook group, The Advocacy Partnership, Team TAP for short, with the mission to support “local parents of kiddos with neurodiversities.”
Fitchburg and Leominster high schools each have Best Buddies chapter classrooms that host special education program students and have Peer Buddies students who assist them. LeClair said that as a mom of a child with autism, being involved with Best Buddies and helping to organize SEPAC events such as Breakfast with Santa gives her an outlet to help other families in the same boat as her.
“After the strong interest, we are definitely looking to make this an annual event,” she shared. “The families who joined us this past weekend find it difficult to access these types of holiday events traditionally because one or more members of their family are impacted by physical, behavioral, developmental, emotional, or sensory challenges. All members of the SEPAC board, including myself, have children who fall under that umbrella as well.
“We all put our heads together to make this as accessible as possible for the kids and to help foster a sense of community amongst the adults. Seeing the smiles on the children’s faces when they got to spend time with Santa and hearing laughter echo in the auditorium as families immersed themselves in the assorted activities was really the best Christmas present we could ask for.”