Deaf and hard of hearing children welcomed a special guest at The Forks on Sunday.
The historic site invited a Santa that uses American Sign Language (ASL) back this season to speak to deaf and hard-of-hearing children in their first language, and seven-year-old Livian Zacharias was there to greet him.
“At age two she was diagnosed with with bilateral hearing loss, and it is degenerative,” said her father, Dave Zacharias.
The family uses ASL as a second language in the home, anticipating Livian will lose her hearing completely in coming years.
“It’s been a struggle and a challenge because part of it has been for myself to learn American Sign Language,” said Zacharias. “It’s very challenging as a parent to have things that are child-friendly or child-oriented. You really have to be connected.”
Zacharias moved his family to Winnipeg from Morden to have better access to deaf and hard-of-hearing programming for Livian, and his five-year-old son Connor has also taken up ASL.
One thing the family doesn’t have to worry about, though, is finding a Santa who can communicate with Livian, using her own words.
“The program Signing Santa has been running for over 10 years, so it’s really a staple at The Forks,” said Taylor Cole with The Forks North Portage Partnership. “Usually they see around 100 kids a shift, and it’s only a four-hour shift.”
And Signing Santa isn’t just for deaf and hard-of-hearing children.
David Burke has been signing in a Santa suit for almost 15 years, ever since The Winnipeg Community Centre for the Deaf called on him.
“There are deaf and hard-of-hearing children and children with deaf parents who want to visit Santa, so they asked me to start doing it in 1999, and I’ve been doing it ever since”
Then, the program expanded to The Forks.
Burke, who is an ASL instructor at Red River College by day, not only sees deaf and hard-of-hearing children but kids from all over the world.
“Here at The Forks you meet a lot of interesting people – a lot of people from different countries for example -- Israel and Japan – and some of them do not speak any English and we’re able to communicate through gesture,” said Burke. “One woman who was 90 years old had never sat on Santa’s lap before and she came and sat on my lap and we took a picture and her face just lit up. It was quite a moment.”
On Sunday, Burke got a Christmas wish-list from Livian and Connor in ASL.
“It just lights up their eyes. They just love it,” said Zacharias.
At the top of Livian’s list was a skateboard and a doll house, but according to her dad, just getting to deliver her Christmas wish list in her own language was a gift.
The Signing Santa will be available at The Forks on Sundays until Christmas.
All of David Burke’s words have been translated from ASL to English by ECCOE Translation Services.