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December 11, 2002


From: Tyler Morning Telegraph, TX - 11 Dec 2002

By: SARAH HEISKELL, Staff Writer

Students with special needs discovered Christmas with their senses Wednesday at the Discovery Science Place.

The fourth Alliance Sensory Tree Party, sponsored by the Smith County Medical Society Alliance, gave more than 120 physically and mentally impaired children the opportunity to experience all the sights and sounds of Christmas.

"Many of these children have disabilities," said Julie Kerns, Alliance president. "They can't see, they can't hear, and we try to make Christmas so that they can see, feel and touch it. We want to really make them a part of Christmas."

Children arrived, many in wheelchairs, and were greeted with a stimulating array of activities and a stocking full of goodies from Santa.

In one room, the Tyler Area American Band, dressed as elves and fairies, played Christmas carols for the children as they sat quietly and listened.

And for a handful of hearing-impaired children, cellists from the Tyler Youth Orchestra played "Silent Night" so they could feel the vibrations from the music.

"It's hands-on, much like the Discovery Science Place," said Mrs. Kerns. "I just love the smiles and listening to the kids singing. It's wonderful and a lot of fun."

After listening to Christmas carols, the children moved on to smell, touch and hear the sensory Christmas tree.

A toy train circled the base of the tree, chiming its bell as it went. Each ornament dangling from its branch had something to offer the children's senses, whether it was made from potpourri or felt.

"All the ornaments on the small tree and some of them on the big tree were handmade by a Girl Scout troop, church groups and our Medical Alliance," said Alliance chair Ann Primer.

Mrs. Primer first heard about the sensory tree from the Houston Medical Alliance, which had been decorating a Christmas tree for children with hearing and vision impairments for more than 25 years.

Convinced that the same concept would work in Tyler, Mrs. Primer brought the program to the Discovery Science Place four years ago and children with disabilities have benefited ever since.

"We brought three children out with us today," said Nancy Terry-Reinhart, a teacher from St. Louis, Texas. "This is our first time here."

Next to her side were three boys, aged 4 to 9, who appeared to be thoroughly enjoying themselves as they rocked slowly back and forth to the music.

"We have a deaf child, one with a lot of physical impairments and a child with cerebral palsy," Mrs. Terry-Reinhart said. "Two of my kids really enjoy music. They could stand in front of the radio all day."

The children were not the only ones having a good time; the musicians were all smiles too.

"We've been out here to do this three or four times," said flutist Anna Krafvey. "I think some of the kids recognize us. In Wal-Mart the other day a little girl came up and recognized my sister from the year before. It's a lot of fun."

Anna's sister, Ellen, usually plays the clarinet, but this year she decided to dress up as a fairy instead.

"In a way we get more out of it than the kids do," Anna said. "Originally we came out for our grandmother because she asked us to, but now we do it because we love it."

Trumpeter Heidi Wise volunteered over the summer at the St. Louis School and knows firsthand just how much the party means to the children.

Some of the more advanced kids look forward to coming," she said. "They know that it's coming and they get so excited about it."

The party is rewarding for everyone involved, and would not be possible without the help of all the teachers and chaperones, said Mrs. Primer.

"The feedback has been wonderful," she said. "It makes you cry to see some of them with the excitement and joy that they get out of it. It just makes our Christmas."

© Tyler Morning Telegraph 2002