‘Sensitive Santa’ nights offer holiday fun for individuals with special and sensory needs

Santa’s Christmas Tree Farm has partnered with a local family for this year’s “Sensitive Santa” nights, held on Wednesdays in December. 

“Sensitive Santa” nights offer an opportunity for people with special and sensory needs to take a picture with Santa in a calm environment. The lighting is dim and music is turned off. The program, which lasts from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., offers hot chocolate, popcorn and cookie decorating. The last program scheduled for this year will be held this Wednesday, Dec. 15. 

“So many families have said that this is the first that they’d ever had pictures taken with Santa with their child and they’re really grateful,” said Stacey Soloviev, who owns Santa’s Christmas Tree Farm. “I’m just hoping to start something where other businesses will also open up for all inclusive.”

Johanna Benthal, 25, of Jamesport and her mother Eileen have helped connect more people with the program, including groups from Mary Haven and RISE. Last week, puppy raisers from Canine Companions came as well. Ms. Benthal also invites people in as a greeter and helps bring cookie kits and refreshments to visitors.

“It’s a very quiet environment and it’s open to other people, there were other people that came in with kids too, and everybody appreciates the lowkey,” Eileen Benthal said. 

Johanna Benthal suffers from lesions in her brain that can cause strokes and has had “a lot” of brain surgeries, her mother said. However, that doesn’t keep her from staying busy — she has a farm with chickens and goats, and will soon start beekeeping, thanks to sponsorship from Ms. Soloviev. 

“She’s an amazing little entrepreneur and an inspiration, in spite of the things that she struggles with,” Eileen Benthal said.

She called collaboration with Ms. Soloviev on the Santa program a “win-win” for the family. The partnership has allowed them to connect more people with disabilities to “Sensitive Santa” nights while raising awareness about the importance of accessibility. 

“There’s a lot of young families who are navigating their ways through school systems and IEPs and it’s a struggle to do these kind of festive things, you know, either because their kids have motor issues like wheelchairs or walkers, or cognitive issues like developmental disabilities and/or autism,” she said. “Santa can be a very overwhelming experience for any child, but this is very helpful. I witnessed Santa in a whole different way.” 

Ms. Soloviev, who said some of her children had different sensory issues, started the program in 2019. She said it was always hard to find programs “suitable for them.” Accessibility is important to her; she built a handicapped playground in East Hampton to promote inclusion and awareness.

“I remember when I took my first child, who has sensory issues, to see Santa and we had to wait in line and then when we got there, he got scared and he actually punched Santa in the face, it was really bad,” she said. 

Besides offering calm nights with Santa, she hopes the events will help normalize inclusivity and accessibility. 

“I’m just hoping that it branches out to other businesses,” she said, perhaps inspiring “sensitive hours.” 

“I guess the biggest thing I want to say is making it very normal. So when I offer the ‘Sensitive Santa’ nights, it’s really for everybody,” she added.

Eileen Benthal said she and Johanna plan to participate again next year. The family is in the process of starting a nonprofit to help facilitate connections to foster more accessibility.

“It’s important to be visible, it’s important to educate people, it’s important to allow for people with disabilities in particular with developmental disabilities to be able to have healthy, happy experiences that are geared for them,” she said.