A soothing, sensory-friendly Sunday in Vernon Hills with Santa
The hustle and bustle that fills Hawthorn Mall in Vernon Hills during the holidays had yet to unfold Sunday morning.
Aside from a few walkers, the lower level near Macy's was empty shortly before 9 a.m., and the mall music was muted to accommodate the visitors who were about to arrive.
From 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., the mall hosted Soothing Santa, a sensory-friendly opportunity for children with special needs and their families to experience the mall's new Santa set, "The Elf on the Shelf: Santa's Magical Photo Adventure" away from the usual noise and crowds. The display, a first of its kind for the Chicago area, is inspired by the popular "The Elf on the Shelf" children's book.
Before their time with Santa, the children took in the set, as their parents snapped photos of them at its interactive stations, including a sleigh.
Tera Theodore, an 8-year-old with Down syndrome from Mundelein, fed prop apples to a large figure of a St. Bernard wearing the customary barrel around its neck.
Her father, Tom Theodore, said his daughter has participated in the sensory-friendly gathering for three years and likes talking with Santa.
"It's nice not to have to wait in line with 300 people," he said. Jenna Velelekos, marketing manager for Hawthorn Mall, said the event has grown increasingly popular, beginning with about 10 families and now attracting about 30. "Families come back every year and they are so grateful to have an event like this," she said. It was the fourth year for Rosy Aguayo-Lopez of Waukegan and her family, including her 7-year-old son, Vinny, who is on the autism spectrum.
"This year, he is really learning what Santa is," she said.
In addition to visiting the display, families were able to treat themselves to hot chocolate and croissants from Maggiano's, which opened a private room for the event. Miss Fox Lake, 18-year-old Alyia Thibault of Round Lake, was on hand to volunteer at the arts and crafts table. But she also has a personal connection to the event, since she, too, is on the autism spectrum.
"I even get overwhelmed with all the noise and lights and sounds and waiting in long lines," said Alyia, a student at Grant Community High School. "I definitely think this is a very low-key event for people who have more severe autism than I do."
Families who may have missed Soothing Santa at the mall will have another chance from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 8. The display itself is up through Dec. 24.