When Bob Mills dons his cherry red Santa suit, he says he can't help but smile. And after 10 years as the big jolly guy at Special Kids Day, he can't help but keep coming back.
"My favorite thing is seeing the look in the kids' eyes and the expressions on their faces of acceptance, joy and happiness even though they're in a very painful existence," he says.
Special Kids Day is a free, volunteer-run event that gives physically and developmentally disabled children and their families a chance to see Santa on their own terms in a safe, nonjudgmental environment. For one day in December, the Elmhurst Camera Image Center turns into a handicapped-accessible, kid-friendly paradise of blinking Christmas lights and tinsel-trimmed evergreens.
Since it started in 1990, founder and shop owner Rich Rosenberg has watched Special Kids Day grow by leaps and bounds. The event that started out with 15 kids now attracts upwards of 350.
Rosenberg decided to put together the first Special Kids Day after years of photographing kids with Santa in malls. "It occurred to me that we never saw special needs children coming to see Santa," he says. "In a mall, no one means to stare, but it's something we tend to do. This is an opportunity to visit Santa in your own time, in your own circumstances."
Bags of Barbies, baseball gloves and coloring books sit at Santa's feet each year, waiting to find their way into playful hands. Every child who visits takes home a bag of toys, all donated by local residents and businesses.
Mills says he doesn't have any special training-just heart-but Rosenberg calls him "an expert" at interacting with special needs kids. Over the years, he has even picked up some sign language phrases to communicate with hearing-impaired kids.
"Some of these children are profoundly handicapped, but for them it's about the excitement of the moment like any child," Rosenberg says. "It's about getting dressed up and having someone fuss over you and make you feel special."
Special Kids Day will be held 4-8 p.m. Dec. 6 at Elmhurst Camera Image Center, 533 Spring Road in Elmhurst. For information, call (630) 530-8000 or visit www.specialkidsday.org.