As residents checked into Mepham High School on Saturday for the Fine & Performing Arts Parent Association’s inaugural Winter Festival, they heard holiday melodies echoing in the halls. Handmade Christmas crafts covered the walls, and student musicians collaborated on carols. In the first few minutes, a young girl played patty cake with a “Sensory Santa.”
For the first two hours of the Winter Festival, activities were subdued, to cater to children with special needs, so they could enjoy the event without feeling overwhelmed. Band students played their instruments softly, and children were occupied as they waited to meet Santa. Volunteers brought squishy toy, which children could use if they were having a hard time.
“It’s a calming mechanism,” explained Debi Astrow, a co-president of FAPA and a former president of the North Bellmore Special Education PTA. As an advocate for those with special needs, Astrow said she wanted to create a place for families to enjoy winter activities without worrying about long lines or large crowds. “Here, it’s easy to get to Santa.”
Sensory Santas are employed at sensory-friendly events to give special-needs children one-on-one time with old Saint Nick. The Santas are trained to take cues from parents and caregivers to meet a child’s individual needs, and quiet activities are made available to entertain children while they wait.
FAPA Co-president Joanna Laverty said the event was also a way to showcase each art program Mepham has to offer (see box). In the lunchroom, art students assisted children with face painting and ornament decorating, and band students played Christmas tunes with vocal accompaniment from MephAcapella. In one hallway, choir students sang sweet harmonies, and in another, orchestra students strummed classical holiday songs. In the music room, broadcast students set up a green screen, anchor desks and cameras to give children a shot at reporting the news.
“We wanted people to walk out and go, ‘Wow, their fine arts are amazing, and what a nice way to bring in members of the special education community,’” Laverty said. “We [went] over with our kids what’s specific to that population, and what we could do to make them happy and comfortable.”
Mepham student Carly Green, 16, helped children write letters to Santa. Having volunteered with North Bellmore SEPTA since she was in middle school, Green said it was important that children with special needs were included in the Winter Festival.
“Sometimes they get shy, but all the sensory opportunities here help them feel a little more comfortable and like a [part of the] community,” she said.
Principal Eric Gomez said he hopes to hold the festival every year, as it shines a light on Mepham’s talented art community. “Learning so much about the different students means so much to me because it goes beyond what they do in the classroom,” he said. “It really is about how can we make the school environment better for every single student.”
The festival’s sensory-friendly aspect, Gomez added, was significant in spurring a sense of belonging between the special-needs community and the school.
“I hope we laid a foundation for something that we can do for years, even past our time,” Laverty said. “Anytime we can bring the community into our school to see what we do, and to give back to them too, it’s a win.”