More than 20 families made the Thompson Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders a stop on their holiday to-do list to enjoy a private visit with St. Nick on Saturday and Sunday. In the fourth year of this annual tradition at the Thompson Center, Santa and his elf, played by volunteers Vince Eversgerd, of Pierron, Illinois, and his daughter, Lora Hinkel, of Columbia, spent the weekend at a makeshift North Pole visiting children who are clients of the center and their families in a calm, familiar environment.

“Many families who have children with autism or other special needs miss out on some traditions, like visiting Santa at the mall, because the environment is too much and they can’t really enjoy it,” says Executive Director Stephen Kanne. “We are so lucky to have Lora and her dad volunteer to do this so that our families can participate in this holiday tradition in a more supportive environment for their needs.”

Hinkel, a speech-language pathologist and special educator in Columbia Public Schools, helps welcome the children and facilitate their interaction with Santa. She can also support any communication needs the children have, such as using sign language and communication devices.

Eversgerd has been playing Santa for years for his extended family, including Hinkel’s son, Blake, 14, who has autism, and he enjoys seeing the children who return to the Thompson Center each year to see him.

“The kids remember me!” said Eversgerd, just as much as he remembers his repeat visitors. “It’s neat to see them come back and see how much they’ve grown.”

Santa and boy.

Marcus Oswald, 8, high-fives Santa in thanks for his Pokemon gift.

samantha-haworth-age8

Samantha Haworth, 8, goes over her Christmas wishes with Santa.

carter-longenecker-age-7-isabella-longenecker-age-3

Carter Longenecker, 7, and his sister, Isabella Longenecker, 3, spend quality time with the big guy.

maxwell-owen-age-4

Maxwell Owen, 4, accepts gifts of sweets.

Young child and mother.

Shanmuga Rajesh, 3, and his mother, Prajitha, enter the cafe area of the Thompson Center, which has been transformed into the North Pole for the special visitors.

 More news from the Thompson Center »