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Grand Forks Santa sets aside time for children with special needs

When Santa waved at the shy little girl waiting for him with her parents, she couldn't help but give him a wide smile, the corner of her eyes crinkling.

Presley Hudson goes over her Christmas list with Santa
Seven-year-old Presley Hudson, daughter of Rob and Becca Hundon, Grand Forks, goes over her Christmas list with Santa Saturday at TrueNorth Equipment. The Grand Forks business organized the event to give children with special needs a chance to meet Santa.JOHN STENNES/GRAND FORKS HERALD.

When Santa waved at the shy little girl waiting for him with her parents, she couldn't help but give him a wide smile, the corner of her eyes crinkling.

Presley Hudson, a 7-year-old from Grand Forks, was dressed in her holiday best for her visit Saturday. Her mom, Becca, said Presley had rehearsed for days to think of what to say to Santa.

But on Santa's lap, she had little to say, turning away from him and handing over a handwritten note instead.

Santa, or rather Charlie Murphy, a salesman at the True North Equipment John Deere dealership on the west side of town, pressed on, talking to Presley quietly until she was comfortable enough to answer his questions.

He said with special needs children, he tones down the ho-ho-hos, because kids can be sensitive to loud noises. "It just takes time and patience -- not a lot -- they eventually warm up."

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It was the fourth year True North has hosted a Santa visit for children with special needs, an event that follows a visit geared more toward mainline children.

There were less than two dozen special needs children at the second event, which Becca said was about perfect. She said Presley is anxious in large crowds and would often cover her ears.

Understanding

Also at True North was Janice Kern and her 12-year-old son, Charlie, from Grafton, N.D.

Charlie, who was diagnosed with autism, is uncomfortable around little children, even when his younger brother was an infant, she said, which partly explains why he wandered to the back of the dealership's store after his session with Santa.

But he was also back there to play with all the yard equipment and the small tractors on display. His mother kept a constant eye on him to remind him to look but not pick things up.

She said she wouldn't want to be here during business hours. It's nice to be in an environment where other people understand her son's needs, she said.

That's why she asked True North four years ago to set aside a time for families with special needs children.

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Joan Oncken, who works at the dealership where her husband, John, is a partner, was only too happy to do so. She said she used to be a paraprofessional in Grand Forks Public Schools' special education program and grew up with a brother with cerebral palsy.

She started Santa visits at True North about six years ago as a way to familiarize city dwellers with the business, which sells tools for yard work as well as farm equipment, she said.

It seemed an odd place to bring children, but they, like Charlie Kern, all seemed to delight in pretending to drive the compact tractors, lawn mowers and other utility vehicles. One little boy ignored Santa completely, running away from him to sit in one tractor after another.

Always jolly

Charlie Kern was among the first of the special needs children to see Santa on Saturday.

Uncomfortable sitting on Santa's lap, he wandered away, causing Santa to follow. He wouldn't say exactly what he wanted for Christmas, but got much more communicative when he started showing Santa pictures of toys on his cellphone.

His mother said autistic children have a hard time communicating. Charlie's shoe size changed from 6½ to 9, and she only learned of it when she had his feet measured, she said.

By the time the special needs children arrived, Santa had already had more than 120 children on his knees in the course of three hours. But he was as jolly for the last child as he was for the first.

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He said he's known special needs children for most of his life. His wife began teaching special education in the early 1970s, and he has many friends who have special needs.

It was about that time that a 24-year-old Charlie Murphy began playing Santa.

He said he fits the physical description so it was natural. And he's jolly all the time, he said. "I'm just happy. Life's been very good to Santa."

Call Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1248; or send email to ttran@gfherald.com .

Charlie Kern whispers to Santa what he wants for Christmas
Charlie Kern whispers to Santa what he wants for Christmas at an event for children with special needs to meet Santa Claus in Grand Forks. JOHN STENNES/GRAND FORKS HERALD

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