Meeting Santa is often a highlight for young children. But very few get to enjoy a special photo session with the man where they get to share his milk and cookies.
Austin Maners, a 4-year-old boy whose special needs have required him to use a feeding tube since he was a baby, recently experienced that dream during a recent visit to Santa at a mall in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
The boy had just received the green light from doctors to begin eating solid foods, and his mom, Beth Salzbrenner, wanted to commemorate the development with a special photo. She got the idea from a Facebook page for parents of kids with feeding tubes.
"I thought it would be a good way to have like a memorial picture," Salzbrenner told WANE-TV.
But the visit meant waiting in a long line at the noisy mall with lots of antsy kids and Austin, who has sensory processing issues, got overwhelmed. Fortunately, Santa’s helpers noticed and quickly stepped in.
"They saw that he was stressed out in the line, and they let us go right to the front," Salzbrenner said.
Austin and his sister took a traditional photo with Santa, who then accommodated the request for a special picture. The resulting photo shows a shirtless Austin in candy-cane striped pajama bottoms — and Santa “pouring milk” into the boy’s feeding tube.
“It was magical. He was sharing his cookies and helping him with his milk," Salzbrenner said.
"I could tell he (Santa) was nervous because he was shaking, but he still stood there and waited for the pictures to be done, and he wasn't even rushing it."
Salzbrenner posted the picture on her Facebook page, where it has been shared more than 63,000 times and received twice as many reactions.
“This santa deserves to be recognized for his willingness to tube feed my little guy so that he felt included in sharing cookies with santa!” Salzbrenner wrote in the post. “Thank you so much to my fellow tubie momma for the idea! It's such a cherished photo!”
Salzbrenner told WANE-TV she didn't expect the photo to be received so widely, and warmly, but she's grateful for the exposure it has provided for children who have special needs.
“People are learning and seeing that there are all different kinds of disabilities, and that kids can be treated normally even if they have a disability,” she said.