Parking lot Santa visit brings cheer to UPS for DownS families
Young Lilliani Padilla, 10, of Wadsworth rode in the car with her mother and sisters for more than hour before they arrived in Schaumburg. But the prize was worth the wait: They were going to see Santa.
"She's been counting down the minutes," said her mother, Martha Padilla, of Lilliani, who was born with Down syndrome.
It mattered little that the visit took place in a parking lot and Lilliani could not get out of the car. When they arrived, she bounced up and down in her seat with excitement, grinning from ear to ear as Santa and Mrs. Claus approached.
"Merry Christmas!" the couple exclaimed, which left Lilliani thrilled.
Visits like this one took place every 15 minutes earlier this month at the headquarters of UPS for DownS, or United Parent Support for Down syndrome. The 40-year-old organization -- run entirely by parents and volunteers -- regularly serves more than 500 families, with more than 2,000 on its mailing list.
The group offers regular health and educational programming -- for parents and participants -- as well as different social clubs for all ages, a walking club, book club and its highly popular theater club.
All of its offerings advance the organization's main pillars of providing support, information and community to families.
Buddy the Elf, played by board member Drake Krohn of Mount Prospect, greeted each family when they arrived. While Santa and Mrs. Claus visited with families, their elves ran to get gifts that had been suggested ahead of time.
"I think it's wonderful that, even though we can't (have a party) in person, that UPS for DownS has been kind enough to do this for the kids," said Laurie Sweet of Schaumburg as her 17-year-old daughter, Somer Hatyina, unwrapped her present, a doll.
This would have been the 25th holiday party thrown by UPS for DownS families, a tradition that is one of their largest events each year. Recent holiday bashes have taken place at Conant High School in its cafeteria, which is big enough to fit the nearly 300 people that attend.
The party typically includes holiday food, crafts, games, carols and a visit with Santa, who had a special gift for each child. The idea to pivot instead to the Car Mingle with Kris Kringle came up at a December board meeting, with Krohn taking charge of the idea.
"This has been one of our biggest events of the year, so we couldn't just cancel it," said Krohn, who developed a friendship during college with a young man with Down syndrome. "This time of year is so special to our kids and their families."
Families pulled up with children of all ages who delighted in the visit. Diana Vivirito, 36, of Hanover Park arrived with her father, and while she very seriously told volunteers her name, she burst into a big smile upon seeing Santa and Mrs. Claus.
"Hi, Mrs. Claus," Diana said. "I'm so excited for Christmas Eve."
She accepted her gift, but did not open it. Instead, as they pulled away, she yelled out the car window, "I love you, Santa!"
Another young patron, 5-year-old Jack Heeley of Naperville, remained in his car seat, but he couldn't stop waving and blowing kisses to Santa and his elves.
"You see," said board member Terry Devine of Orland Park, "the magic of Santa is for everyone."
Jon and Melissa Crabtree of Oak Park played the roles of Santa and Mrs. Claus. They have assumed the roles for the last eight years at Winter Wonderfest at Navy Pier, but this year they mostly are visiting virtually with children.
Thomas Squires of Lombard and Kate Vargulich of St. Charles danced along as their trusty elves, wearing costumes that were bright and colorful.
All four actors have worked with UPS for DownS participants in the organization's theater program, which features performers with and without Down syndrome. Currently, its members are rehearsing for a Zoom presentation of the high school version of "Les Mis."
"We work with lots of theater groups," Melissa Crabtree said, "but this is the one that fills my heart with so much love."