Luanne Helms, and her son Jake, host annual Christmas events geared toward Opelika’s population with special needs. Jake, 22, was diagnosed with autism in 2001 and epilepsy in 2012.

“Jake is nonverbal but he is very capable and active in the community,” Luanne said.

Jake spends a lot of time in Opelika, helping others, she said.

“I think it’s important to get him out in the community and see people and to do things to encourage other parents to do the same,” she said. “That is one of my main goals for being as transparent as I am in our journey.”

Ten years ago, Luanne and Jake held the first of their Christmas Events — Skate with Santa in 2011.

“As a special needs mom myself, there were a lot of years that I sat there and thought, ‘well gosh, there should be something for our families to do,’” she said. “And there wasn’t. And I said, ‘Somebody should do something about that.’ And then I realized I was that somebody.

“It’s important because they need fellowship. They need to be with other like individuals and to love on them. That has been my main goal, is to love on our special needs families, our moms. And to just let them know that we see them and they’re important.”

Skate with Santa continued until 2016 when the skating rink shut down. Following that, Luanne held a few moms’ socials.

This year will be Trains, Cookies and Santa at the Opelika Municipal Park on Dec. 11 from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. Santa will ride the train with guests and there will be gifts for each child with special needs. The event is open to children and adults of all ages, with special needs, Luanne said.

Luanne added that her son Jake not only participates in the events, but helps her with them too.

“Besides getting to enjoy the activities, he’s one of the biggest helpers for the events,” she said. “Helping unload and set up and then, of course, he’s there to help when we clean up. But you can just tell, leading up to any event, I’ve always had to store stuff, so there would be stuff stored and he would be looking around and it would build excitement for him.”

For all of her events, Luanne makes sure to offer snack choices that are more inclusive to those who have dietary restrictions. So this year, all the cookies will be both gluten and dairy free.

“For all the events I have done over the years, I have always tried to offer both options if that wasn’t the only option, just because I know that it is difficult for some families to be able to go places because their kid grabs something they’re not supposed to have,” she said. “Then it kind of ruins the whole purpose of them being able to get out and have some fun.”

The event is being held outdoors to help mitigate COVID-19 worries, Luanne said. Luanne said watching the community grow is one of the most rewarding parts of this work.

“Ultimately, my main goal is to bring others together and build friendships,” she said.