Deaf children celebrate Christmas with deaf Santa

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Dearborn — Max Beaver was so excited to sit next to Santa Claus, he forgot to ask for anything. Instead, the 6-year-old sat broadly grinning with the jolly old elf before bounding away with a stuffed-stocking gift.

His mom, Judy Shepherd, 32, of Westland, stood nearby in an elf hat with an exasperated expression.

Scott Powers uses American Sign Language as he signs with Louis Peltier, 2, of Ypsilanti as he is held by his grandfather, Ken Temme of Casper, Wyoming, at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Dearborn.

“You didn’t even ask Santa for anything, and then when you received your gift, you didn’t thank him,” she animatedly signed. “Go back and thank him now.”

So Max scurried back to Santa, lifted his hand to his mouth and then down at an angle.

“Thank you,” he signed.

Santa positioned his hand with the pinky, index finger and thumb extended up.

“I love you,” he signed back.

Shepherd gazed into her son’s eyes and embraced him. Max wanted a blue Elf on the Shelf for Christmas because he already has a red one.

“Christmas is his favorite holiday,” signed Mom.

The young boy, his mother and this particular Santa are deaf. And they love Christmas.

It doesn’t matter that deaf children, such as Max, do not hear the familiar sound of wrapping paper ripped from gifts Christmas morning, “Jingle Bells” or squeals of joy from parents and siblings. The spirit of the holiday is captured in moments like this one.

Scott Wilson Powers, otherwise known as Deaf Santa, makes sure of it. The 46-year-old from Rochester Hills has suited up for this job for the past eight years.

It is the spirit of Christmas that drew Shepherd, her son and a couple dozen other families with deaf children to Emmanuel Lutheran Church on Military Street during a recent snowy Saturday.

The children decorated cookies with sprinkles, made crafts and watched a Christmas video about Jesus, interpreted by visiting Pastor Tyler Walworth of Our Savior Lutheran Church for the Deaf in Birmingham, to remind them of the true meaning of this day.

The children shyly approached Santa to ask for trains, bikes and Barbies. Some sat next to him to be photographed. But unlike kids who can hear visiting mall Santas, deaf children can’t share their wish-lists if Santa can’t sign back.

Powers knows how painful that can be.

Audrey Nowaczyk, 7, of Howell poses with Scott Powers, aka Deaf Santa, during an event at Dave and Buster’s in November.

He contracted spinal meningitis at age 5 and came down with a high fever, and the result of the illness was deafness.

What he remembers most about his own visits with Santa as a child are tears of frustration.

“In one of the pictures of me with Santa, I’m sitting there with tears streaming down my face,” he said. “I was trying to tell him what I wanted, and my dad was trying to interpret, but it wasn’t very successful.”

Despite the failed communication, Powers said, he continued to visit Santa.

Asked why, he responded, “because my parents wanted me to go so I could have a picture taken with Santa.”

“But I never made eye contact with him because there was no communication,” he said.

He said those experiences impacted his desire to make Christmas more meaningful for deaf children.

“I enjoy volunteering every year, going to different places like churches and various businesses,” he said. “I love to see all the kids and to see their faces with that ‘wow’ expression on their faces that says ‘Santa can sign, and Santa is deaf, too.’ ”

But some stories he hears from children are heartbreaking.

“I’ll never forget a little boy who came up to me last year with a letter in his hand,” Powers said through an interpreter. “He sat next to me as I read the letter, and I began to cry inside because I couldn’t cry in front of him. Santa isn’t supposed to cry.”

He continued: “The child asked me if I could give the letter to his mother in heaven. So I looked at him and said, ‘OK, yes,’ I would give the letter to his mother. The child hugged me, and I felt goosebumps. It was very warm and very sad at the same time. My father had passed away, so I could relate to how it feels to lose someone you love.”

Another time, a little girl asked him for a bullet-proof vest for Christmas.

“She was afraid to go to school because she thought she was going to get shot in a school shooting,” he said.

Often, children tell him other things they’re afraid to discuss with their parents.

Paul Baerwolf, the principal at Emmanuel Lutheran School, said it was important to have Deaf Santa at the church.

“For one thing, it allows the deaf community to come and socialize, and it allows our students who are practicing American Sign Language to use it within their community,” he said.

Deaf Santa said he does not have a regular job when he’s not dressed in costume. He said he has two business degrees and has worked some in the past, but he has given up looking for work. And he usually does not get paid to be Santa. But he does charge $8 to have a photo taken with him.

“I spend most of my time helping my friends and family whenever they need me,” he said.

A few feet away from Deaf Santa, Leilani Osenbaugh, 5, of Clinton Township wasn’t quite ready to approach him. But she shared what was on her wish list.

“I want some nail polish,” she said. “Pink and yellow.”

What else would she like?

“I want a Doc McStuffins and I want a pony.”

She was asked, “A real pony?”

“Yes,” she responded. “I would ride it in my bedroom.”

Both Leilani and her sister, Kalena, 7, wear hearing aids and attend McGlinnen Elementary School in Clinton Township.

“I want a mermaid fun tail and a Barbie Dream House,” Kalena said.

Kalena said she and her sister learned to sign when they were toddlers. Sign language was their first language.

Deaf Santa said he learned to sign in the ninth grade when he began attending a school for the deaf in Georgia. He moved to Michigan in the 10th grade and attended Michigan School for the Deaf. He said he wears a hearing aid but not when appearing as Santa.

“When I’m wearing my wig and beard, I often sweat, and when a person sweats, their hearing aid often shuts off, unfortunately,” he said.

His venues have expanded beyond the North Pole. He’s been Deaf Santa everywhere from the Michigan Deaf Bowling League to Kroger, Shield’s Pizza, Chuck E. Cheese, a candy shop in Clawson and an ice cream parlor in Troy, among others.

And at each stop, the requests for toys and for help are ongoing.

But what is on Deaf Santa’s wish list?

He pauses to reflect for a few moments.

“I don’t really want anything,” he said. “I guess you could say world peace. And I want everyone to have good health.”

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Interpreter Victoria Fox of helped with this story