Detroit — Last year, Ryan Martin was too frightened to take a picture with Santa, but on Saturday, he ran up and gave him a high-five and smiled as he decorated cookies with other children that Samaritas helps. 

Ryan, 10, has autism and has never spoken. His mother, Stacy Martin, said she was shocked and delighted to see Ryan leap out of his comfort zone. 

"Santa walked in and he just got up and left... I couldn't believe it," said Martin, 44, from Westland. "It's so nice to know he recognizes him and understands. He loves toys that light up and make noise and tries to sing so if he could, he'd ask Santa for that."

Ryan was one of 60 children that Samaritas serves through its family preservation programs that celebrated the holiday at the Carl E. Thomas Center near their headquarters with the Logan Foundation for Children. 

Families decorated cookies, crafts activities and caroling. Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus distributed gift bags filled with hats and gloves, toys and games, stuffed animals, storybooks, toothbrushes and toothpaste and coloring books and crayons to every child.

This is the 21st year the Logan Foundation for Children is hosting a Christmas party and its first time partnering with Samaritas. Brooke Nowaskowski from Macomb Township founded the charity when she was in high school and would host the Christmas parties with the Logan Elementary School. After the school closed, the program grew more than Nowaskowski expected and they expanded their efforts. 

"Last year, we gave 600 gifts to kids," Nowaskowski said. "We had lots of people donating but not a lot of manpower. I met with Kelli and learned more about Samaritas' programs and felt a connection, like this, was a good fit for our mission: bringing cheer to people in need. Helping others is the meaning of Christmas. It wouldn't feel like Christmas if we didn't have this party every year."

Samaritas' Family First program is one of the many family preservation programs it offers hoping to help parents so their children aren't forced into the foster care system, said Program Manager Annetra Bennett.

"Family First is a state initiative to help families in crisis and we respond immediately to help stop the bleeding," said Bennet, from Detroit. "This year, we've helped 105 families and 2,500 across the state."

When families enter the program, the spend 28 days with Samaritas caseworkers for 10 hours a week and Starnyisha Lyght said they helped more than put smiles on her five children's faces on Saturday.

"We started with Samaritas five months ago after one of my sons got in trouble at school and they referred the program," said Lyght, 29, and mother of five in Detroit. "I have two sets of twins and a boy in the middle. It can be so hard but the program taught me ways to be a better parent and how to stay calm in frustrating situations. They got me a refrigerator when I needed it and movie passes for a family outing."

Kelli Dobner, Chief Advance Officer for Samaritas, said it was the first year they celebrated having more in their family preservation programs than in their foster care programs. 

"We're so proud that we're serving more families in Family First than in foster care and that we're able to join with Logan's Foundation to spread some cheer to families who are working so hard and barely make ends meet."
Twitter: @SarahRahal_

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