For 6-year-old James Epps, the prospect of meeting Santa Claus was very exciting, but also a bit overwhelming. James has special needs, so big crowds and social interactions can be difficult for him.
But a kind Santa went above and beyond to make this Christmas experience a happy one for James. And they took some awesome photos to remember it.
On December 2, James’ mom Alison brought him to “Santa’s Special Visit” ― an event at Restoration Community Church that offers kids with special needs in their Tennessee community the chance to meet the jolly man in red. Having the opportunity to interact with Santa in a calm and understanding environment is invaluable to kids like James.
“I think people don’t realize how difficult something like that can be for some children,” Alison told The Huffington Post. “I would love for people to be more aware and accepting and less judgmental when we try to participate in events in our community.”
James was born prematurely a 22 weeks, six days and weighed just 15 ounces. He was diagnosed with autism at 3 years old and epilepsy at 4. James also has mild cerebral palsy and a feeding disorder.
“He gets very overwhelmed when there is too much activity, or when it is too loud,” Alison explained. “We have learned techniques over the years to help calm him, but they don’t always work. Many times we’ve had to leave events because he’s become overwhelmed and can’t calm or just completely shuts down.”
When James met Santa Claus, he felt overwhelmed and nervous and didn’t want to sit anywhere but the floor. But that was no problem because Santa got down on the floor with him.
Photographer Jennifer Arnwine, who volunteered to document “Santa’s Special Visit” free of charge, snapped a few photos of their sweet interaction, and Epps shared them on her Facebook page. After the mom’s friends told her how much the photos touched their hearts, she also sent them to the popular Love What Matters Facebook page, where her story received over 22,000 likes. Santa “did everything he could to make it a magical moment for my sweet boy,” she wrote in the caption.
“James was so excited to meet Santa,” Alison told HuffPost. “We talked about it a lot leading up to that day.” Since the experience, she said James talks about Santa and smiles. “I believe he remembers the event and it is a good memory for him,” she said.
James’ mom wants people to know that her son is so much more than his diagnoses. “He is loving and kind-hearted,” Alison said. “He reads on a second grade level. He is learning to play the piano just by listening and can play about eight recognizable songs.”
As for James’ Santa photos, she hopes they “bring a smile” to people. “I also hope it helps people be aware that the child they see crawling on the floor or acting different in some way needs your kindness and understanding, not your judgement,” she said.
Alison also believes her story could inspire others to hold similar events in their communities. “Without an event like this James would not have had the opportunity to meet Santa,” she said. “These little things help create childhood memories that won’t be forgotten.”