Father Shane Doty, two-year-old Ariah, and mom Melissa Doty, were among those who got their picture taken with Santa Sunday at Tillicum Centre. It is offering families of children with disabilities, autism, or chronic illnesses the chance to meet Santa during specially reserved times. Sessions are available on Dec. 10 and Dec. 17. Wolf Depner/News

A sensitive Santa for sensitive kids

Saanich shopping centre reserves time with Santa for kids who need it

Ariah was in no mood to meet Santa this Sunday morning.

The two-year-old girl was lying face first on the carpet of Tillicum Centre. Her body language, not to mention her crying, made it clear, that she had no interest in getting a picture with Santa, who was sitting patiently in his chair, surrounded by Christmas decorations and ornaments, as shoppers strolled past.

A photographer was patiently waiting, in the wings, ready to snap the camera that he had set up for Sensitive Santa.

This service of Tillicum Centre allows parents of children with disabilities, autism, or chronic illnesses, to meet Santa during specially reserved times, without having to wait in long lines.

Her parents, Melissa and Shane Doty, tried their best to simultaneously comfort and convince Ariah that Santa wanted nothing more than to listen to her Christmas wishes — to no avail.

After a while, they decided — at least for the moment — to wait until Ariah had settled down, and more importantly observed other children with Santa.

Today was not the first time that Ariah met Santa. But the last meeting did not go so well, and once Ariah’s parents had heard of Sensitive Santa, they decided to come down from Shawnigan Lake.

Ariah, says her mother, has a number of health issues, including neurological issues, and programs like Sensitive Santa offer a chance to meet Santa under less hectic, more calming circumstances.

“You don’t feel rushed,” she said.

Kira Harris, marketing coordinator at Tillicum Centre, said the centre wanted to give children like Ariah and their parents the opportunity to meet Santa, without having to face big crowds, which can be stressful.

To help everybody, Tillicum Centre has also partnered with Community Living Victoria, which supplies trained and experienced helpers to assist the children and their families.

Families can book by emailing kharris@riocan.com with the subject line Sensitive Santa Booking. To be clear: this opportunity exists only for children with disabilities, autism, or chronic illnesses.

Stephanie and Tyler Paquette had brought their six-month-old twins and two-year-old Elizabeth to meet Santa earlier that morning.

Everything takes a little bit with Elizabeth, whom doctors are currently diagnosing for autism. “It was only this past January, where we realized that something was wrong,” said Tyler.

Waiting for a long time in line, as it is customary for pictures with Santa across North American shopping centres, can be especially tricky.

Sensitive Santa — which runs again on Dec. 10 and Dec. 17 for an hour each from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. — offers an alternative.

“For us, it [taking pictures with Santa] is a really important thing,” said Tyler.

Others thought so too, and over the course of an hour or so, the photographer from Prestige Event Imaging, shoots about three more sets of pictures, including one with five children.

Towards the end of the session, Ariah’s parents make another attempt to get their daughter into a picture with Santa. It takes no small effort, and Ariah’s session with Santa quickly turns into an impromptu family portrait as Melissa and Shane join.

Ariah cries during most of the brief session, but the picture is definitely a keeper.

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