"I can't do it, I can't handle them in there."
"It's too much."
"They don't know boundaries and will bother the other children."
"I'm not up to it. I can't take the looks".
"There is no way he'd sit on Santa's lap anyway, why bother putting either of us through the pain?"
"I'll skip that Christmas party."
"Maybe next year."
So when we learned a few years back that our local autism support group lost the funding for their annual holiday party for families, my group of autism mama friends decided to organize and host it. I wrote about D'MAC planning the 1st party here.)
Having this chance to give back to our community means so much to all of us that we keep doing it, and it keeps getting bigger. And better. This year, we expected 100 children to come, and we were ready to make it an amazingly special day for them.
Everyone stepped up to the plate. SafetyNet by LoJack donated gifts for every single child and more pizzas than I have ever seen in my life. TILL sent out invitations to all the families in the city they knew affected by autism and to whom they had provided support in the past. They encouraged families to come and kept track of the ever growing guest list. They helped wrap and organize 100 presents, each appropriate for the deserving children.
A DJ friend who has generously run the show for the past 3 years spun Christmas and dance tunes and children of all ages twirled and flapped and frog hopped and jumped and yelled.
The West Roxbury YMCA, who already schedules programs specifically for our kiddos, came with a team and supplies ready to paint faces and do arts and crafts.
Parents let their guards down a little bit and let their children run around. They didn't have to be vigilant to make sure their children were being "appropriate". They just let their children be themselves. They hugged old friends they'd met through various services and therapies, they introduced themselves to other parents who are traveling the same journey. They sat and relaxed. They hung out at the bar and watched their beloved Tom Brady lead the Pats to victory (yes, of course there was a bar - this was a D'MAC party!)
Another friend played Santa to these children for the 3rd year in a row. He could have told one of his buddies it was their turn. It would have been so easy to let someone else do it. He came back. He looked around the crowded hall at 100 children and took his seat, ready to deliver on a very special promise. He took a picture with every single one of them and gave them each a present.
This was no mall Santa. He was patient and jolly. He was the real deal to 100 children, including my own 2 boys who had never come within 20 feet of Santa before.
And these are just a few of the things that I heard during, and after the party:
"I think my strongest feelings stemmed from the sense that we belonged there.....that we were truly among friends old and new, who understood and accepted us for who we really were..Our typical concerns about Daniel at a party or event did not exist because his limited understanding of boundaries would be accepted...there were NO boundaries and no one was judging us/him..."
"For most of these families this is the only chance they can have their child visit Santa. There are no trips to the mall, no waiting in line for Santa. If a child melts down, no judgements, no 'why is this so hard'. "
"Since I was the only thing standing in the way of the kids on line and Santa I spoke to a few of them and one whispered to me "I know this isn't the real Santa because he is in the North Pole but I'm not going to tell the little kids because that would be mean" and then he jumped up and down when Santa finally arrived. For our kids...literal thinkers and truth-talkers this was huge. He kept it to himself and got caught up in the excitement of Santa despite knowing the truth."
"It was truly heartwarming to see how excited my kids were about going this year, and then to see how much fun they had at the party. But mostly I was almost in tears seeing all the new families and how much those kids really loved it. Really special."
"This is the first party that Timmy has been able to hang at for awhile so it was fun for all four of us. Granted, he was sitting at a bar watching Tom Brady... his mama's son!"
"I was supposed to be on 'line control' for the Santa line. Mostly I just body-blocked for the photographer so he didn't get bumped. I can't tell you how many (non-verbal or barely verbal) kids that passed by in line grabbed my hand and just held it. They managed to say it all in that gesture. So sweet."
"As always this group never fails to deliver....and boy did you ever. Robbie & Ava had a blast even when he was in sensory overload! He just went outside w/ John for a few to organize himself & came back ready for more fun."
"I was so impressed with everyone's generosity. From the gifts, to the food, to Santa Claus, it was a great day. Especially impressed with all the Momma's & the Poppa's who worked hard organizing this so my gang could enjoy! A big thank you!"
"It meant a lot to see so many new faces, I know some are just starting this journey and well, if they walked away with a smile thinking I'm not alone, that's the best Christmas present!"
Unfortunately, it wasn't perfect for everyone. A few kids couldn't come into the hall because of the noise, or had to leave due to sensory overload. James made it 2 hours before he started pulling me to leave. There were no looks. I felt none of the anxiety that I always do with a public meltdown, because everyone understood.
And you know what came from those difficult times?
Instead of "this was too big and too much, next year we'll scale it back so it is easier for our own kids", it was "Next year we need a much bigger space, with more room to move, and a separate room for sensory breaks. There are more families that we need to bring".
We've already started working on it. We're meeting next week (for drinks at the Grotto, of course) to re-cap and start planning for next year.
Here are just some of the highlights from an unbelievably wonderful day.
Thanks so much for everyone who worked so hard to make it successful, including:
Pauline Lussier and SafetyNet by LoJack
Lynn Tougas and Joshua Lyons of TILL's Autism Support Team
Santa Mike O'Brien
DJ Paul Aube
Marion Kelly, Mary Carew-Lyons and The West Roxbury YMCA
Fornax Bread Company
John St. Amand and Jennifer Lawlor, photographers extraordinaire
Boston City Councilor-at-Large John R. Connolly
Boston City Councilor Matt O'Malley
Boston City Councilor Rob Consalvo
And to my amazingly incredible D'MAC family,
You moved mountains to make this special day possible for so many children you didn't even know, and you brought hope, understanding, support and love to every parent who walked through those doors. There are not enough thank yous in the universe for you all. xoxo