Deaf Santa visits area kids at MCTC
HUNTINGTON - In a room getting warmer by the minute, 180 or so people eagerly awaited the arrival of Santa Claus.
When Santa and Mrs. Claus walked in, he did not wait to sit down. With both hands he motioned for all the children to come forward, and with arms stretched wide began hugging the tiny tots by the dozens.
For the kids who came from as far away as Columbus, Ohio, and Beckley, West Virginia, this wasn’t just any Santa Claus; this was the Santa Claus who knows and understands their Christmas wishes.
For the 10th year, Hurricane, West Virginia, resident Ernest Williams, who has been deaf since birth, and his wife, Vickie, who plays Mrs. Claus and who is deaf and blind, have brought Christmas magic to Mountwest Community and Technical College for its Brunch with Deaf Santa.
Organized by Leigh-Ann Brewer of the American Sign Language Program at Mountwest in conjunction with the Culinary Arts (providing food) and the Early Childhood Education programs (providing arts and crafts), the event features Williams, the signing Santa, as well as a host of elves, all fluent in American Sign Language. Santa and his elves visited with the kids and gave them presents from the children’s written Christmas lists that were submitted in late summer and donated by area groups.
As “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” played in the background, one of Brewer’s main elves has been Laurabeth Meade, who is in her third year at Mountwest double majoring in ASL and early childhood education. She was making last-minute preparations, with Brewer and others scrambling to make sure needs were met for those who had walked up Saturday morning for the event.
“What is so special and so heartwarming is watching the love that comes from Mr. and Mrs. Claus,” Meade said. “He sees these kids, and it is real tears crying. He walked in today, and I greeted them and she gave my sign name last year and I just boo-hooed - and I am not a crier - but just watching their interactions is overwhelming. Night to Shine (a special-needs prom) is the only other thing that makes me feel this way.”
Donations were taken at FedEx, as well as a Christmas tree on Mountwest’s campus where folks could help fulfill wishes.
“This year we got a late start, so a lot of hours have been spent in a very short amount of time,” Meade said. “It showed up quick. I think that we announced it maybe three weeks ago, so I have been putting the needs up on the tree and asking for a GoFundMe, but God takes control and it always works out.”
While early childhood majors such as T.J. Gibson kept the kids busy with game and craft stations where they could play with Legos, make gingerbread cookies, necklaces and hand trees, students from Mountwest’s Culinary Arts program made sure everyone was fed with French toast sticks, sausages and drinks.
Among the students, mother and daughter Trel and Hope Vance, who are in their first semester in culinary school together, had big smiles watching the kids be so happy in the moment.
Stacey McCallister, the director of the Culinary Arts program and the cafe, said she wouldn’t miss the event for anything, and she’s not kidding. Just a couple years ago, she couldn’t work the event because of surgery but came anyway just to experience it.
“I always tell the students they will love doing this, but be sure and keep a tissue handy,” McCallister said a few minutes before having to get a napkin to dab tears in her eyes.
Jeremiah Cruz, a 2015 graduate of the ASL program and who gave the commencement speech at his graduation, wouldn’t miss the brunch for the world. He and his wife, Carla, also a graduate of the program, bring their son, Laynce, every year to see Santa.
Jeremiah Cruz, who is from New York City, is living in Huntington after graduating from school here but is planning to move to Florida. He said he is proud to be a graduate of Mountwest and to be a part of its ASL program.
“I will always be a Mountwest supporter all of my life. It is very special,” Cruz signed. “I am a deaf individual and was born and raised using sign language all of my life, but when I came to school I learned things that were different. I learned how to teach my language to hearing people and to teach other people in the community about how to communicate with deaf people. I wanted to learn the linguistics of my own language. Like hearing people know English but they need to take classes in English, deaf people know sign language but need to take classes in the linguistics of ASL. I wanted to know the depths of deaf history and the deaf culture, and it has helped me build a stronger deaf identity.”
Candace Ansah said sharing and celebrating the deaf culture is important in her family. She had her 1 1/2-year-old toddler, Charlie, there to meet Santa and was texting photos to her deaf husband, Nick Ansah, who could not make the event because he had to work.
“We think it’s really important for him to see so many adults signing and to as a family embrace deaf culture,” Candace said.
For good reason, the event is an annual favorite of Dr. Keith J. Cotroneo, president of Mountwest, and his wife, Carol, who both broke into wide smiles when Santa came strolling in.
Carol, who said she has had hearing aids for about half of her life, said nothing exhibits the true spirit of Christmas like this event.
“Everyone should come to this event at least once in their life to see the spirit of Christmas - it is right here with everyone pulling together for all of these beautiful children,” Carol said as Santa made his way into the room.