As a child, Scott Powers was frustrated he couldn't communicate with Santa Claus at Christmastime each year because neither Santa nor his elves knew sign language. Today, Powers is helping to solve that problem for hearing impaired children through his own service, Deaf Santa.
"I couldn't lipread him and he couldn't sign. I just really wanted him to know what I wanted for Christmas because every year he seemed to always get the wrong toy," Powers said. "My dad would always do his best to interpret for me, but I still got the wrong toy from Santa. I was in so many tears, year after year."
In 2010, a friend suggested Powers summon "Deaf Santa" to help a girl at Christmas party. The following year, Powers summoned his inner Santa from his Rochester Hills "North Pole" again, this time for a fundraiser at a deaf bowling league. As the requests kept coming in, Powers saw a greater need for his special brand of Santa Claus, leading to an annual trip around metro Detroit for various hearing impaired events.
"The deaf children visiting me have the same challenges with reading my lips because I have a beard on. However, since I can sign very well, I can communicate with them," he said. "I enjoy my job as Santa and listening to the children talk to me every year. It's not only limited to what they want for Christmas, but just about anything in general. I make sure they have been good this year and obeying their parents.
"Because the deaf community is close knit, I see some of the same children year after year, and most of them just want to talk with me about anything, from their grades in school to any concerns they have. Many parents don't take the time to learn sign language to talk with their deaf children – it's sad but true – so Santa takes the time to listen to them."
Since starting Deaf Santa, Powers said many of the early children have grown up; however, some have chosen to volunteer as elves along side him.
"It's very inspiring to see them develop such a giving attitude about Christmas," he said.
While being Deaf Santa comes with its own set of challenges, but from early on, Powers said there have been additional obstacles. First, he said, it was pushback from other Santa Clauses in the community.
"They were very judgmental about what I was doing," he said. "Some believe that Santa should be an older man, with a real white beard, dressed the right way ... and hearing," he said. "This year was all about money. I had some financial hardships that I didn't expect to come up, and it put this season in jeopardy."
As the season drew closer, Powers received help from his bank's branch managers at Lake Michigan Credit Union in Rochester Hills, Craig Wietchy and Kristina Green. Another neighbor helped by taking him shopping for a new camera after asking for suggestions on where to get his old one fixed.
As for criticisms about how "Santa" should look, sound and hear, Powers said children can be the judge.
"Children already know there are more than one Santas out there. They are smarter than we think they are," he said. "But, it means a lot when one deaf child came up to me and asked, 'Santa, are you deaf just like me? Santa can you sign, just like me?' Then she exclaimed, 'You're the real Santa!'"
Photo: Esme McClear