By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(Jan. 3, 2019) A decades-long local holiday tradition continued last month, as Santa Claus and one of his top elves visited the Cedar Chapel Special School in Snow Hill to deliver presents to students.
The school has 55 students between the ages of 3 and 21 with moderate to severe disabilities.
Principal Belinda Gulyas said the tradition dates back to at least the mid-1990s and was started because many parents had difficulty taking their children to visit Santa in public venues.
“Sometimes it can be difficult for parents to get their children out,” she said. “It can be the mobility of getting kids out, [or] it can be the community that doesn’t always understand behaviors that are happening with children, so it can be tough for parents to endure how they’re feeling out in the community.
“It can be overwhelming – it can be too many people or too much noise,” Gulyas continued said. “So, it really does provide an opportunity for our kids to see Santa, where many of them may not [otherwise] get to see Santa.”
Community donations and fundraisers help support the service. Gulyas said staff members buy and wrap individual gifts, “and then Santa comes and delivers all the gifts to the kids.”
This year, filling in for Santa Claus was Berlin Town Councilman Thom Gulyas.
“It’s such a great opportunity to give back,” he said. “I can’t tell you how much their [kids’] faces light up when Santa walks in. I think they really enjoy having the chance to meet Santa and sharing that small amount of time during the holiday with the kids always makes it worth it”
Also pitching in was Berlin Falls Park Committee Vice Chairman Jack Orris, who has served as one of Santa’s elves.
“I started helping Santa last year and was incredibly touched by how much the kids at CCSS sincerely enjoy meeting and talking with Santa,” he said. “They express pure joy and being a part of their holiday truly is an amazing experience.”
Principal Gulyas said the school welcomes visits from all community members – not just those hailing from the North Pole – and is always looking for financial and other assistance to help continue its level of services.
“They can contact Cedar Chapel at any time and we, of course, love to do tours,” she said. “We love to educate our community on the amazing strength and gifts that our kids have. The more that we can do that, the more there can be an understanding in our community, so when our students are out … the public around them has a better understanding.”
Gulyas said it’s difficult for those with regular interactions with disabled children to understand their behavior.
“Once once someone has an education, [they can be aware] that children with autism might have certain behaviors, or children who are nonverbal may need some assistance or may need some extra time communicating what their wants and needs are,” she said.
“Usually, once we provide some of that education for our community, our community really just envelops our kids and becomes this very generous and kind community. But, we do need to take that time to educate, so I would love to do a tour any time someone would like to,” Gulyas added.
For more information or to contact the school, call 410-632-5230 or visit www.cedarchapel.org.