Luanne Helms, and her son Jake, host annualÂ Christmas events geared toward Opelikaâ€™s population with special needs.Â Jake, 22, was diagnosed with autism in 2001 andÂ epilepsy in 2012.
â€œJake is nonverbal but he is very capable and active in theÂ community,â€ Luanne said.
Jake spends a lot of time in Opelika, helping others, she said.
â€œI think itâ€™s important to get him out in the community andÂ see people and to do things to encourage other parents to doÂ the same,â€ she said. â€œThat is one of my main goals for being asÂ transparent as I am in our journey.â€
Ten years ago, Luanne and Jake held the first of theirÂ Christmas Events â€” Skate with Santa in 2011.
â€œAs a special needs mom myself, there were a lot of yearsÂ that I sat there and thought, â€˜well gosh, there should beÂ something for our families to do,â€™â€ she said. â€œAnd there wasnâ€™t.Â And I said, ‘Somebody should do something about that.â€™ And then I realized I was that somebody.
â€œItâ€™s important because they need fellowship. They need toÂ be with other like individuals and to love on them. That hasÂ been my main goal, is to love on our special needs families, ourÂ moms. And to just let them know that we see them and theyâ€™reÂ important.â€
Skate with Santa continued until 2016 when the skating rinkÂ shut down. Following that, Luanne held a few momsâ€™ socials.
This year will be Trains, Cookies and Santa at the OpelikaÂ Municipal Park on Dec. 11 from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. Santa willÂ ride the train with guests and there will be gifts for each childÂ with special needs. The event is open to children and adults ofÂ all ages, with special needs, Luanne said.
Luanne added that her son Jake not only participates in theÂ events, but helps her with them too.
â€œBesides getting to enjoy the activities, heâ€™s one of theÂ biggest helpers for the events,â€ she said. â€œHelping unload andÂ set up and then, of course, heâ€™s there to help when we clean up.Â But you can just tell, leading up to any event, Iâ€™ve always hadÂ to store stuff, so there would be stuff stored and he would beÂ looking around and it would build excitement for him.â€
For all of her events, Luanne makes sure to offer snackÂ choices that are more inclusive to those who have dietaryÂ restrictions. So this year, all the cookies will be both gluten andÂ dairy free.
â€œFor all the events I have done over the years, I have alwaysÂ tried to offer both options if that wasnâ€™t the only option, justÂ because I know that it is difficult for some families to be ableÂ to go places because their kid grabs something theyâ€™re notÂ supposed to have,â€ she said. â€œThen it kind of ruins the wholeÂ purpose of them being able to get out and have some fun.â€
The event is being held outdoors to help mitigate COVID-19Â worries, Luanne said.Â Luanne said watching the community grow is one of theÂ most rewarding parts of this work.
â€œUltimately, my main goal is to bring others together andÂ build friendships,â€ she said.