Encore performance: Santa visits autistic child in Marydel

MARYDEL — Marlene Zayas just wanted to give her young grandson Gerimiah a taste of Christmas when she hired a Santa Claus to visit her home on the Delaware side of Marydel two years ago.

That Santa was a no-show, leaving the family feeling angry and at a loss.

The thing that particularly stung Mrs. Zayas was the fact that her 4-year-old grandson is autistic, so getting the chance to see Santa Claus in the comfort of their own home was going to be a big deal for Gerimiah.

“I have a hard time getting my grandson, who is autistic and has sensory issues, to go to the mall and see Santa Claus, or even go up to Santa Claus,” Mrs. Zayas said. “So, having the chance for Santa to visit Gerimiah at our home was going to be a great experience for him.”

Unfortunately, it didn’t happen.

Phil Pennington, former chief of the Bowers Beach Fire Company and a member of Frederica Volunteer Fire Company, learned of the Zayas family’s plight through social media and took it upon himself to make a few calls and see how he could help.

“We saw the post on Facebook and my wife Shirley and I had purchased a Santa Claus costume probably three or four years ago,” Mr. Pennington said. “Last year I started getting more into it and my wife and I have a special needs stepson.

“To see what happened (to the Zayas family) kind of infuriated me a little bit and I was like, ‘How can you do this? How can you stand up a kid like that?’”

Helping the family

So, Mr. Pennington spoke with a close friend of his, Marydel Fire Company Chief Buffy Madden, about what he could do to help the family.

Suddenly, Operation Santa was put into motion.

“Phil Pennington was chief of Bowers and a member of the Frederica Fire Company and he stepped up and called me because we’re friends,” Chief Madden said. “He said, “If I play Santa Claus will you get the fire trucks and we’ll drive out to (Gerimiah’s house). He told me, ‘This little boy loves fire trucks and loves Christmas and there has to be something we can do.’

“I told (Mr. Pennington) ‘If that’s what you want to do, we’ll do it.’”

So, Santa Claus got inside the fire truck and took off to visit Gerimiah two years ago.

The joy on Gerimiah’s face was such that Mr. Pennington and the Marydel Fire Company decided to do it all over again last Sunday — and even added a Santa Run through the Marydel community.

“It’s just amazing just to see the kids’ faces,” said Randy Barr, president and first assistant chief of the Marydel Fire Company. “Seeing that kids’ faces light up was well worth everything.

‘A time of giving’

“Just to do something like that is what Christmas is all about. It’s a time of giving.”

Marlene Zayas was joined by her husband Carlos, her daughter Brandy, Gerimiah and her 9-month-old granddaughter Anaiyah when Santa and his helpers came visiting again last Sunday.

Mrs. Zayas’ friend Barbara Borntreger and her 3-year-old grandson Riley also got to visit with the jolly bearded man in the bright red coat.

“After last year, we decided that we just had to do it again,” Chief Madden said, of visiting Gerimiah and his family. “I talked to our president and said, ‘Let’s do it again for that little boy,’ because he was so excited that he got the chance to see Santa Claus and a fire truck last year.

“This year we took two fire trucks and two fire police cars and there were eight of us involved.”

Mr. Barr said Santa Claus presented Gerimiah with a toy fire truck, a police car and a police helicopter.

“By the time we left he already had put the helicopter on the Christmas tree and the ladder truck was placed underneath the tree,” he said, with a laugh. “He loves loud noises – anything that makes noise.”

Santa Claus also gave Anaiyah a toddler stand-up walker and some dolls and Riley his favorite Matchbox cars.

Santa Claus, also known as Mr. Pennington, said the gifts weren’t what excited Gerimiah the most about his visit.

“That’s the funny thing was that Gerimiah could not care less about gifts,” Mr. Pennington said. “The thing that he wanted most was to go for a ride on the fire truck.

“So, we get him and Riley in the truck and we’re riding down the road with the sirens blaring and because of the noise and stuff like that, Gerimiah actually fell asleep. But he definitely enjoyed his time in the fire truck.”

Mrs. Zayas said she couldn’t be more grateful for the efforts of Mr. Pennington and the Marydel Fire Company for making her grandson’s Christmas a special one — two years in a row.

“I can’t say enough for them. That really was special,” she said. “I wanted to cry when they pulled up because they go out of their way and make time for these special kids so that they feel normal, and that means the most to me.”


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