A `Sign` of the Season
// Deaf Santa Claus makes trips to local schools
Every year, kids across America make the trek to visit Santa as a pre-Christmas tradition. Like clockwork, they line up to greet the big man and sit on his lap to let him know whether they have been naughty or nice during the year and – of course – what they would like to see under their Christmas tree.
For many deaf and hard of hearing children, this experience can be far different, or not even exist at all. Deaf children who are born to hearing parents may not even know just who Santa Claus really is, let alone get to tell him of all their Christmas wishes.
But for the past 20 years, the North Pole has been sending a special Santa Claus to local schools with deaf students – a “Signing Santa” who connects with each and every student for a special Christmas experience many of them would have never known.
At Birney Elementary School on Dec. 14, a group of deaf and hard of hearing students lined up outside their school, trembling with excitement as a Tacoma fire truck approached with a very special guest on board.
Once the truck stopped, the students watched as Santa’s big black boots stepped off the rig, and the man himself approached each of the students and signed, “Hello – what is your name?”
More than 30 students from pre-school to fifth grade swarmed around the magic man, who donned a silky white beard, a furry red coat and a beautiful crown of winter foliage.
The group headed inside where Santa sat down and invited each little one to his lap, where the child could confidently tell Santa what he or she wanted most for Christmas. And just like that, Santa pulled a special toy from his bag, making a small wish come true for each Birney student.
“I grew up with a hearing loss and so I know what it is like to not have a role model who shares my experiences,” said Kelly Runge, who volunteered this year with the local Sertoma group to be the Signing Santa. “This opportunity to do Signing Santa gave me the chance to help students escape the idea that they are different and alone. They only see the people at the school, and therefore seeing another person – Santa nonetheless – who is able to sign is such an amazing experience for them.”
After visiting at Birney, which is a regional hub for deaf and hard of hearing students from throughout the county, Signing Santa made his way to Zeigler Elementary in Puyallup and Lakeland Elementary in Federal Way.
Pam Groshell is a deaf preschool teacher at Birney who has been around since the days before Signing Santa came to visit her students. She said she so appreciates the joy it brings to the children before Christmas.
“Growing up, we always had a hearing Santa. It was really uncomfortable. It’s hard enough for a hearing kid to do it – to leave your mamma and go sit on Santa’s lap,” she recalled. “With Signing Santa the kids can be independent and really connect with that Santa. That bonding between those two people is so important – it shows the kids that (they are) not different.”
Shelia Niquette is a hearing parent whose deaf son attended Birney almost 20 years ago. She still volunteers at the annual event because she knows how much it meant to her own family back then.
“Hearing kids can go to the mall and see Santa. Deaf and hard of hearing kids don’t usually have that access…it’s important for these kids to be able to communicate in their first language.”
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