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Thompson Center Santa visits bring Christmas magic to children with autism

By Adrienne Cornwall

COLUMBIA, Mo. (Dec. 16, 2015) – When it came time for Averie Gomel to decide where to bring her family for a visit with Santa, there was no question that she would bring son Roman Rassmann, 6, and daughter Ivy Dupree, 2, back for a second year to the Thompson Center, where Roman receives care for his autism spectrum disorder.

“He went home last year beaming and told everyone about it,” Gomel said. “There’s no downside.”

Twenty-nine children from 16 families joined Santa and his helper, Jovie, for private visits with Santa, who brought them each a gift from their wish list, coordinated ahead of time by Thompson Center Development Coordinator Miriam Cullimore.

“Our goal is to give families that special experience that lots of families get to have at the holidays but that our families often struggle to participate in,” Cullimore said.

Dakota Reyes, a 10-year-old girl from Fulton, received a new book about a Santa’s North Pole neighbor: a polar bear, currently her favorite kind of animal.

Rather than the long lines and very quick transitions at retail locations they’ve visited, Dakota’s parents, Steve and Corrie Reyes, said the private visit makes for a more meaningful experience for their daughter.

“She just gets overwhelmed with everything else going on, and she starts to freak out sometimes,” Corrie said. “Then, other people don’t know what to do.”

Since the children are familiar with the environment at the center and many of the staff who volunteer for Santa’s two-day stop in Columbia, the whole family can relax.

“It helps that she had an appointment in November, so she’s been here recently,” said Denise Hayworth, whose daughter, Samantha, brought her wish list to Santa. Samantha had taken the time to write it out on her own by hand to show him while Thompson Center nurse Tammy Hickman took portraits for the family to take home.

Spreading the Christmas magic is the work of Thompson Foundation Board member Lora Hinkel, who plays Jovie the Elf, while her dad, Vince Eversgerd, plays Santa.

Hinkel knows firsthand how much it means to be able to participate in these kinds of holiday traditions. Her older son, Blake, has autism, and the long waits and sensory overload of a typical Santa visit have been too much for him to handle since he was very young.

“I enjoy seeing the parents’ reactions as much as the kids’ reactions,” Hinkel said. “It’s one of my favorite things to do the entire season.”

Hinkel, a speech-language pathologist in Columbia, also helps the children with their communication needs, including sign language and using their electronic communication devices to tell Santa what they want for Christmas.

“This is special for both of us,” said Eversgerd, who has played St. Nick for three years now at the center. “The first year, I had parents cry because they’ve never gotten to do this with their children before. There’s nothing like it.”

Roman, a shoe-in for the nice list who had received a letter from Santa the day before, made sure to bring a handmade Christmas card in return to deliver by hand at his visit Sunday. He left beaming once again this year, ready to tackle assembling his new Lego pirate set.

“He has sensory issues and is shy. This allows him to be more at ease with the situation rather than being thrown into it,” Gomel said. “It’s so much more personal.”

Photos by Mikala