"Signing Santa" greets hearing-impaired children at Bass Pro Shops

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. Bass Pro's "Santa Wonderland" is a bit different than most other mall-like settings where children can tell good 'ol St. Nick what they want for Christmas. Nearby is tons of merchandise but also crocodiles, a large fish tank, a merry-go-round and archery and play-gun shooting ranges for the kids

And on Friday it also had a different feel because Santa Claus was using sign language to talk with over 100 hearing impaired children who had come from all across the region to meet someone who understands their world of silence.

This special Santa was also deaf as well.

Stephanie Upton brought nine hearing-impaired students from Holland elementary school.

"It's so wonderful that people can actually sign with them in their language because they can't learn OUR language," Upton emphasized.

Decked out in her Grinch outfit with Star Wars stickers on her hearing aid, eight year-old Riley Slye and her family came all the way from Lebanon for the unique opportunity.

"Talking to Santa makes me feel special because he's deaf and I'm hard of hearing," Riley said.

"For the deaf and hard of hearing there are many different day-to-day things that are a struggle," added Riley's father Justin. "So the opportunity to see Santa and them communicate to a level that they understand just opens up a whole new world to them to where they feel like they're fully involved and they don't feel as different."

"In the past we would go the regular Santa at the mall and they would get frustrated because that Santa didn't talk their language," added Linda Cheek, the President and co-founder of the Deaf Awareness Group of Southwest Missouri who also has hearing-impaired children.
"It is very emotional and sweet for a little child to go up to Santa and sign to him. She's been practicing her list for weeks and even the deaf adults enjoy coming because when they were kids they didn't have this."

If you don't know sign language, you won't know what Santa and the youngsters are conversing about. And that feeling of wondering what's being said helps you understand how they feel in dealing with the same problem in their every day lives.

What are people saying? What noises are going on that could be critical to warning us of something? What are we missing by not being able to process verbal cues?

But according to the "signing Santa", his conversations with hearing-impaired kids are what you'd expect from any child talking to St. Nick. They tell him what gifts they want for Christmas, and ask some questions about how it gets done.

One young girl was quite animated as she laughed and pointed to her nose while shoving her arms towards the floor.

Santa explained she was concerned about his pending arrival at her house.

"She said that me and the reindeer might fall off the roof at her house because it was sloped," Santa explained. "And then she looked at the reindeer next to me and said 'it doesn't have a red nose!'"

As you watch these precious moments, you can tell it means a lot to the parents as well.

"We know God made her special," said Riley's mom Erin. "And we want to bring light to others who may be just like her who want to feel like they belong."

Like Erica Zavala's two boys, who are both hearing impaired.

Pointing to her eldest son Payton she said, "He's in high school and that has to be like the most difficult time ever. I just wish there were more kids he could be able to turn to and be able to confide in."

But on this day at Santa's Wonderland, he had a lot of friends who could understand exactly what he was going through.

Read the original version of this article at www.ky3.com.