By Mary Vorsino, staff writer
Honolulu Advertiser

An article in, Honolulu, Hawaii, relates how some 112 public school children on the islands of Oahu and Hawaii who are deaf or hard of hearing got to tell "Deaf Santa" what they want for Christmas at a recent holiday celebration at Pearlridge Center, Oahu, Hawaii. But absent from the crowd were about 20 students from neighboring islands, whose school districts couldn’t afford the flights to Oahu this year.

To accommodate children who couldn’t come, organizers tried to link up Santa to neighboring island classrooms by video conference. Only one elementary school classroom was able to connect; the other three didn’t because of technical difficulties or because they were busy catching up on other schoolwork.

In the past, schools paid for about 20 children and their teachers from neighboring islands to attend the celebration because it was seen not just as a party, but as a rare chance for a large group of deaf and hard-of-hearing kids to interact and realize they’re not alone, even though their numbers may be small at their own schools.

"For these kids, this is the one major get-together," said Doreen Higa, a state Department of Education (DOE) speech-language pathologist and organizer of what is commonly referred to as the Deaf Santa program, in the article. "Culturally, it’s critical."

Higa said it wasn’t a big surprise when she found out school districts grappling with a worsening budget crunch wouldn’t be covering roundtrip flights this year for kids and their teachers to get to Pearlridge. The DOE didn’t have a figure for how much those past flights cost it.

Higa added that people have been asking organizers for years why the deaf students are flown to Oahu, rather than deaf Santa being flown to them. She said that would miss the point.

"Then, all it becomes is, oh, Santa came to town," she said. "It doesn’t bring that entire community together," giving deaf and hard-of-hearing children around the Islands an opportunity for "deaf culture education."

The video connection, while novel, wasn’t as good as the real thing, she said.

Deaf Santa said he was glad to be able to connect with the kids in some way, but added that he missed being able to take pictures with them or sit them on his lap. "It was still OK," he said, through an interpreter.

He said deaf and hard-of-hearing children get a lot out of seeing a Santa who speaks American Sign Language, just like them.

"I always love the deaf children and showing them deaf Santa, because hearing Santa doesn’t sign," he signed, laughing. "I love being Santa. (The kids) get really excited" when they see him.

The one school that did connect by video conference — Kea’au Elementary School on the Big Island—had five rambunctious 6- to 8-year-olds who were very excited when deaf Santa was brought up on the screen. They each got a turn to give their Christmas requests to Santa, and he read their Christmas wish lists, which had been faxed to him in advance.

"They were so thrilled to see him," said Kea’au Elementary teacher Susy Rivera.

She added, "Santa was a bit choppy (on the video feed). There were some glitches."

This is the 18th year of the deaf Santa gathering, which in addition to sit-downs with Santa includes performances by deaf children and lunch. Most kids were ecstatic to be able to sign with Santa, and some jumped up and down in front of him, signing animatedly and laughing.

"I was a good boy," said Noah Candelario, 6, from ‘Aikahi Elementary School, after telling Santa he wants an "artboard with paint."

Julius Chun, 4, signed "I love you" to Santa.

And Julius was so thrilled to meet him that he forgot to ask for a present.

His mother, Joy Chun, said the day was a chance for Julius to be around others who sign.

"It’s a real nice opportunity for the deaf community," she said.

The gathering included kids from preschool to about 12 years old.