By Nancy Badertscher
Cover Story, AJC: Inspire Atlanta
Santa Claus has arrived with a baby elephant, in a horse-drawn carriage, and under a motorized/supersized Atlanta Falcons football helmet. But he has never missed the Christmas party for Atlantans with special needs and their caregivers. Not in 50 years.
The annual party, which was on Dec.15 this year, was started by Atlanta restaurateur and businessman Bernie Eisenstein and fashioned after an event put on in Vancouver, British Columbia, Eisenstein’s hometown. “I said: ‘If I ever have the chance to do something like this, I’m going to,’” he said. “And I did.”
Eisenstein is still a fixture at the event but turned over the party-planning duties to Atlantans Jerry and Enid Draluck 23 years ago. “Most special-needs Christmas parties are for children,” Enid Draluck said. “This one is reserved for adults 18 and older, and, for many, it’s their only party — their only chance to dance, have fun and just be themselves.”
About 550 special needs adults and caregivers attended this year’s party at the Omni Hotel in downtown Atlanta. For two hours, they enjoyed singing, dancing, meeting celebrities and costumed characters, and partaking in a holiday feast, before leaving with a Christmas goodie bag and their picture with Santa.
Kennesaw resident Cathy Neher and her 39-year-old son Allen were happily back for a 10th straight year. “While we appreciate any community support, this event is extra special to both of us,” Cathy Neher said. “Simply put, it never feels like charity.”
The hotel, first responders, volunteers, entertainers and Dralucks “go out of their way to reach out to all in the community and provide a first-class, fun event,” she said. Allen, who has severe developmental delays, loved every aspect of this year’s party, his mother said. “Some of the highlights for Allen were seeing Santa, just going and getting to be out with all of his friends,” she said. “It’s very comfortable, very rewarding.”
The party also is special for volunteers, including Harold Shumacher of Midtown, who comes back year after year to help. The 71-year-old has been volunteering at the party for 35 years and says it’s “pure joy” watching a special needs adult, totally uninhibited, dancing to the DJ or live band and posing for pictures with celebrity guests.
Most of the guests have severe physical or mental disabilities, live in residential or institutional settings and have very few opportunities to get out, the commercial real estate agent said. “It’s the true spirit of Christmas — or so I’ve figured out, being raised Jewish — in that it’s purely about giving to others with no expectation of getting something in return,” said Shumacher, whose daughter and 6-year-old granddaughter join him as volunteers.
The event started small with about 38 special needs children and a party at Underground Atlanta and has over the years attracted as many as 800 guests, caregivers and celebrities. The party would likely cost about $200,000 to put on, were it not for the “compassion of our partners” who donate almost everything, including the venue, tables, chairs, food and music, Enid Draluck said. She and her husband personally pick up the costs of any expenses not covered by donations. They also make sure any leftover food is repurposed. This year it went to the Safe House of the Women’s Resource Center to End Domestic Violence.
Robin Williams, who has been volunteering for seven years, said the party is “a wonderfully organized and celebratory event,” largely due to the Dralucks. “It simply operates like clockwork,” Williams said. “Every aspect is orchestrated to entertain, honor and serve their special guests.”
Enid Draluck said she and her husband believe the event “is a gift to our guests and an even bigger gift to everyone who volunteers.” Seeing the guests, all dressed in holiday attire, greeting one another, giving high-fives and then filling the dance floor, faces lit with joy, “fills our hearts, our souls,” she said.
■ Enid: “After volunteering for many years, Bernie Eisenstein, the founder, approached Jerry about taking over the event. We discussed it as a family and didn’t hesitate.
We’ve got the planning down to a science at this point: We divide the responsibilities between the two of us and have had very loyal vendors over the years, and that makes our job easier.”
Why is it important for you to put on this event?
■ Enid and Jerry: “It fills our hearts, our souls to see the guests come into the hotel, all dressed up in their holiday attire. They are greeted by the volunteers, and they high five and wish everyone a Merry Christmas. Then, you go into the ballroom as it fills with hundreds of our special guests. You see the pure joy on their faces, and the dance floor fills, and old friends recognize each other and even some volunteers.
The real meaning of the season and for us, Tzedakah connotes giving charitable contributions, but the term originates in another realm. In the Bible, tzedakah means “righteous behavior” and is often paired with “justice.” In Jewish thought and tradition, material support for those in need is not a matter of “charity” – a term that implies generosity beyond what may be expected – but a requirement.”
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