Overland Park nonprofit Santa America hosts first symposium to help train Santa on visiting children dealing with trauma and illness

Volunteers at the first Santa America Symposium. Photo credit FairChild Portraits

Earlier this month, Santa America gathered together volunteers from across the country at its first ever symposium, to further the Overland Park nonprofit’s mission of helping Santa Claus make visits to children dealing with illness or under stressful circumstances.

John Scheuch, president of Santa America, who organized the symposium Sept. 19-21, said he’s had the idea to host a conference or symposium since he took his leadership role in 2016.

“In the past, we have always been an add-on to another organization’s conference, but that meant we never really had full control over the things we thought folks would benefit from knowing,” Scheuch said. “It’s taken awhile to get things moving. Here we are.”

Some of the topics for the symposium covered some of the toughest visits Santa Claus makes every year. More than 30 volunteers playing Santa and Mrs. Claus learned about different ways to visit children who are going through bereavement and loss of a family member, children with autism, children experiencing symptoms of post traumatic stress, and children with chronic or terminal illness.

Scheuch said he hopes every volunteer could go home with a “headful of new ways to approach children in hospice care, children with autism and children and families dealing with post traumatic stress.”

Noting that although he has been “helping” Santa make visits for more than four decades, Scheuch said he still has a lot to learn. For example, being outgoing and gregarious can be intimidating to some children, so he’s had to learn to tone it down for some Santa visits.

“Every child deserves the opportunity to visit with Santa,” Scheuch said. “They may choose not to, but that’s their choice. But they at least deserve the opportunity.”

In celebration of the symposium, the city of Overland Park also proclaimed Sept. 19, 2019, as Santa America Day.

Other Santa volunteers at the conference have picked up their own strategies for those visits, like dimming the lights and using a quiet voice when visiting a child who has autism. Jack Senterfitt, a volunteer from Cherry Log, Georgia, who has been helping Santa visits for about two decades, said he uses this strategy as part of his own event called “Sensory Santa Day.”

Senterfitt said he is planning to bring back lessons from the symposium to help him provide even better experiences for children visiting with Santa.

“There’s always something to learn about how to do it better,” Senterfitt said.

Among the speakers were:

  • Jack LoCicero, who spoke on death, grief and bereavement and followed with a panel discussion from two mothers who both experienced loss of a child and spouse
  • Elisa Gagnon and Brenda Smith Myles, both educators and authors, who led a presentation on autism
  • Tina Clark, Shawnee Mission staff member, who spoke about post traumatic stress
  • Steve Humphries, chief casualty officer at Fort Polk in Louisiana, spoke about post traumatic stress in the military

Senterfitt said the joy of spreading love and hope during his Santa visits — despite how tough they can be — are the reason he keeps it up every year.

“It’s the greatest thing I could ever do,” Senterfitt said of his Santa visits. “Nobody has as much fun with the kids as I do. It’s just magical. When you share love, it’s Christmas every day.”