By Dubravka Kolumbic | Correspondent
In the Christmas spirit of giving, the youth group in St. Mary of the Lakes, Medford, presented children with special needs and their families an opportunity to enjoy a holiday experience that might otherwise be elusive to them.
The group’s first “Lunch with Santa for Children and Adults with Special Needs” took place Dec. 13 in the parish’s Emmaus Center.
About 130 guests, more than double what was expected, enjoyed an afternoon of good food, Christmas cheer and Christian camaraderie, thanks to the combined efforts of the parish’s Y.E.S. (Youths Energized in the Spirit) junior and senior high youth group, members of the Knights of Columbus Council 6520 and other parishioners.
The event, which by all accounts was a smashing success, was the brainchild of Y.E.S. member Nikki Ferrer.
“I think it turned out great,” Ferrer said. “I love seeing the faces of all the adults and kids here having a great time.”
Ferrer, a junior at Shawnee High School, Medford, presented her idea for the special needs event to her fellow youth group members, who immediately supported it. She took charge of the event, soliciting donations from local businesses and organizing volunteers.
“I love to see how much we make a difference,” she said. “Even though it helps them, it helps us, too.”
Father Daniel F. Swift, pastor of St. Mary of the Lakes, said he hoped many of the attendees would take advantage of The Bear’s Den, a parish ministry that caters to special needs adults, after learning about it at the luncheon.
“It’s good to have that segue,” he said. “A lot of them did not know about the program.” He referenced the Bible passage Matthew 19:14, when he said, “You can see their innocence. It’s nothing shy of when the Lord said, ‘Let the children come to me.’”
“I’m absolutely overwhelmed by the incredible response we’ve gotten,” youth minister Linda Xerri said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for our children to reach out to other people.”
More than 50 student volunteers helped serve the food, manned the arts and crafts table and just made sure everyone was having a good time. Santa made an appearance as well, posing for pictures and taking Christmas wish list requests from delighted fans.
“They may not otherwise have had access to sit with Santa and do arts and crafts projects,” Xerri said of the event’s special guests.
“We are about putting Christ’s face on others,” she added. “Through our actions we show our love of God to other people.”
Ronnie Coll and her daughter, Kim Coll, 51, found the luncheon a welcome distraction from the physical and emotional trauma Kim had been dealing with after being bitten in the face by a dog. Ronnie said she couldn’t get her daughter to leave the house until the Santa lunch.
“Nothing has been able to bring her out,” Coll told Xerri. “If you hadn’t done this, [Kim] would still be sitting there crying. It’s just so wonderful.”
Kim couldn’t contain her enthusiasm either. “It’s good,” she said of the party. “It’s a fun time. All of it was great.”
Parishioner Kirsti Heatter is an early intervention therapist for Virtua and spread the word of the event to her patients, some of whom were in attendance at the luncheon.
“Going to the mall to see Santa is not always feasible for those with special needs,” Heatter said. “This is a great opportunity for the kids to meet Santa in a small environment, and for their families to meet other families going through the same thing.
“I’m excited to see it grow more,” Heatter said. “It’s something our community needs.”
Zallie’s ShopRite of Medford donated the food for the event, and Murphy’s Markets, Acme and Costco also made donations. Ferrer and her volunteers posted flyers at businesses throughout the town. One was Medford School of Music in Medford Lakes, whose owner, Jim Riddle, and some of his students, provided the musical entertainment for the event.