GLENS FALLS — Kenny Heath loves a camera, flashing a broad ready smile each time he sees the photographer raise the lens and focus.
And on Wednesday, while visiting the North Country Festival of Trees “Sensory Time in Children’s Wonderland” with his mom, the eager 4-year-old paused from posing for the camera when Santa handed him a bright orange and blue ball.
Speechless, he gently turned his gift to see all sides before looking back up toward his gift-giver and smiling a different kind of smile. Reaching forward, he hugged the magical jolly gent, smiling a warmer, satisfied smile.
As part of this weekend’s Festival of Trees, now in its 28th year, the sensory-friendly offering is hosted by the Upstate Autism Alliance, a not-for-profit organization formed by parents of children experiencing the effects of autism spectrum disorder.
“The event is a way for the children to have a gentle and supportive visit with Santa,” said founder Kristin Horwath, adding that many children with autism spectrum disorder cannot go to malls or stores to visit Santa because there is too much noise and commotion. The sensory experience makes it possible for them to enjoy getting a gift from Santa.
All proceeds from the three-day festival of trees, which runs through Sunday, benefit the Prospect Center in Queensbury, a division of the Center for Disability Services.
“We hope to raise $80,000 this year,” said Anne Schneider Costigan, deputy executive director of the Center for Disability Services. “It is a slight increase. Every year we like to see an increase. All the money raised stays in the North Country to support the Prospect Center.”
On Wednesday, two days before the annual tree festival opened to the public at The Queensbury Hotel in Glens Falls, about 20 children met with Santa in a warm, cozy room complete with fireplace, decorated tree with presents ringing its base, Santa’s “reindog” Boomer and a basket of soft, fluffy, very real-looking kittens.
Some of the children jumped up and down with excitement while others appreciated Santa from a distance and petted the near-real kittens. Even though Boomer the dog wasn’t thrilled with his newly added antlers, he settled into the space, napping at Santa’s feet.
Ten-year-old Skye Peterson wasn’t thrilled about Santa, but she immediately perked up when she noticed a Snoopy dog under the tree.
Just off the Santa welcome room, there are sensory activities and games for the children, including ball drops, trains and a large square filled with round multi-colored lollipops.
The way the Festival of Trees works, anyone can apply to create a tree, wreath, centerpiece or holiday craft that will be sold at the festival. Once it opens, tree browsers, who pay an admission fee of $8, can select a decorated tree — with prices ranging from $50 to more than $350 — to take home on Sunday.
Among some of this year’s offerings are a tree decorated with wood-burned ornaments detailing the heights of various Adirondack mountain peaks.
There is a Harry Potter tree, a Grinch tree that seems to be a children’s favorite, a tree made completely out of grapevines, plus rows and rows of more traditional creations complete with sparkling lights and handcrafted ornaments.
Additionally, there are wreaths and centerpieces, holiday basket raffles, a holiday boutique, scheduled musical events and Breakfast with Santa on Saturday and Sunday.
According to Schneider Costigan, there were over 160 designer entries this year.
“This year’s festival is really good,” she said, adding that on Friday the turnout was excellent. “Even if its snowing on Sunday, we’ll be here. It will make it more festive.”
Awards are given for the entries, and this year’s Best in Show was awarded for “Merry Grinchmas,” designed by Glens Falls Hospital’s Wound Healing Center.