- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2000

Carl N. Schroeder donned the usual colorful apparel for his appearance Saturday as Santa Claus at the District of Columbia's Mazza Gallerie shopping mall.

He sat at the regal purple throne with all the trimmings: the mammoth beard, red hat, white gloves, glasses and red-and-gold robe. Only one difference distinguished Mr. Schroeder's St. Nick from most others.

He's deaf.

That was fine by an excited Aya Kuzbari, 13, of Rockville, Md. She's deaf, too. When she sat on Santa's lap, the two connected on familiar territory, even exchanging the raised index finger, pinkie and thumb, which is American Sign Language sign for "I love you."

"I feel great," Aya said through interpreter Nancy J. Kowalski. "I like Santa Claus because this Santa Claus is a happy one, not a mad Santa Claus. He wouldn't spank me or anything. He's cool."

The coordinator of American Sign Language at Montgomery College, Mr. Schroeder, 47, can read lips and was aided by several of his students in greeting the children. It's the 18th consecutive year for Mazza Gallerie to have a signing Santa, but it was Mr. Schroeder's debut at the shopping center, located on upper Wisconsin Avenue NW.

"It's like magic, watching all the kids, seeing all the lights in their eyes," Mr. Schroeder said via Ms. Kowalski. "Eyes just light up, and they're enthusiastic. It's really fascinating."

"It's a new experience for both, myself as a Santa Claus and for the children. We're using interpreters to communicate."

• • •

Brendan Lynch is a veteran he has used American Sign Language to play signing St. Nick for five years.

"I'm a big guy, and I like kids I'm good with them, so it was a match waiting to be made," says the 39-year-old suburban Maryland resident.

"With deaf kids, their deafness gets left at the door," Mr. Lynch says. "It's their moment to be a kid talking to Santa, and you watch their face light up when there's real conversation happening."

There's no cost to sit in the fat man's lap. Proceeds from Santa photos ($7 for one; $10 for two) and gift-wrapping ($3 to $10) will go to Byte Back, a charity that has supplied more than 2,000 area residents with low- or no-cost training in computer job skills since 1997. The organization hopes to develop a computer training program for the deaf and hard of hearing. In the past, the Signing Santa Station at Mazza Gallerie has raised $10,000 to $12,000 for charity.

"This is one of the few malls [where this] is a fund-raising effort and not a profit center," says Buddy Chambless, who is in charge of managing the Signing Santa Station. "Most of the malls do this, and I understand that at some of the larger malls, it generates a good deal of income for them."

Mr. Chambless spread the word at Chantilly and Lake Braddock high schools, which have American Sign Language classes in their foreign-language departments, as well as the Montgomery County Association for the Deaf, Montgomery College and the National Association for the Deaf.

• • •

Playing Santa isn't easy. Mr. Lynch recalls his first year as nerve-racking but rewarding.

"The way the kids would look at me in the costume, they got me believing in Santa Claus, too," he says.

Yet it takes a deft touch. The first few seconds can make or break a visit to Santa. In his five years, Mr. Lynch has never belted out a "ho, ho, ho" because he says he thinks it would scare the kids.

"I don't ask them if they've been good or bad," Mr. Lynch says. "I tell 'em that all my helpers tell me they've been good and ask if they could be a little better, and that just kind of gets them to smile a little bit, and they're like, 'Really? They said I was good?' "

As for signing to children, Mr. Lynch says, the only difficulty is placement of the child. A hearing person can sit on Santa's lap and whisper in his ear to ask for a robotic dog or stuffed Pokemon.

"That kind of physical proximity isn't really conducive to sign language," Mr. Lynch says. "Part of the language is facial expression and body language, and you need space to do that. It's harder for them to sit on my lap and do the sign language."

The challenge is reversed for Mr. Schroeder, who says he woke up Saturday feeling his nervousness in his stomach.

"It's a new experience for me to kind of listen to what they have to say to me," he says. "I think of myself as an outsider, and I have to listen to a new world.

"I've learned as a deaf person that I can break through the communication barrier with children and children are very flexible and easy to communicate with."

The most gut-wrenching part of playing Santa has been hearing some of the requests from both young and old, hearing or not. Mr. Lynch says that can be emotionally draining. Children of divorced parents come up a lot, but also children and adults who have lost a sibling, spouse or a parent, and they want their loved ones back.

"My first day last year, a woman came up, and she was told she had a week to live, that she wouldn't be around until Christmas … because cancer had spread through most of her body," Mr. Lynch says. "She was saddened that she wouldn't be around for her grandchildren and her grandchildren really needed her.

"So we sat for 15 minutes and talked, and I just rubbed her back, and I was just wiped out after that.

"It's powerful to see the emotions that people [bring] and the situations that people endure in their lives."

Mr. Chambless says Mr. Lynch's ability to "read" the children makes him a model Santa.

"If ever a Santa is going to encourage a frightened little child to be comfortable in Santa's lap, Brendan will," Mr. Chambless says. "We make sure the people selected are comfortable with kids in their lap for upwards of eight hours. Those children at 6 p.m. want to have the same jovial Santa that the ones at 11 a.m. had."

The third Santa, Jaime Corondo, laughs when he says that sitting down for so long is the hardest part.

"He can also translate sign language into Spanish," says Ms. Kowalski, who is president of American Sign Language Interpreters, the small, woman-run Silver Spring business that provided interpreters for Mazza Gallerie. "If he heard it in Spanish, he would sign it in English, but he can also finger-spell the Spanish. So the Spanish kids who come to him certainly would know what he is saying."

The 35-year-old graduate student at American University does it for the income, but the idea that he could try something new was important to him.

"You should always try something once," he says, "and I think I'll do it again."

Mr. Chambless has played Santa in his native Atlanta at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, so he has had "several years experience of being behind the beard."

"I understand the awe and the inspiration of seeing a tiny infant whose entire hand can't even wrap around my little finger," he says. "Talk about humility and realizing how small I am and how big the universe is is indescribable."

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