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'Safe and Inclusive environment': Special holiday party for autistic families

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It’s a moment Samantha Rivers will never forget.

Her autistic son getting his first ever photo with Santa Claus.

“This is Logan,” says Rivers, who was attending the 19th annual Jake’s House Holiday Party.

“This was his first time sitting on Santa's lap. He's quite terrified in the past. So just the community itself has been so welcoming.”

That community is Jake’s House. It is an autism charity founded 20 years ago.

“It started with Dave and Irene (Bodanis) and they have three boys, two of them affected by autism,” says Jennifer Joseph, CEO of Jake’s House.

Irene Bodanis and her husband Dave give away gifts at the Jake’s House Holiday Party in London, Ont. on Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023. (Brent Lale/CTV News London)

“They found themselves alone during the holidays and they really wanted to welcome in other families and so they started off very small party and welcomed in everybody else.”

The party at RBC Place in London had about 250 people in attendance, and includes Irene buying a gift for every autistic person there. They have a bouncy castle, and a special visit from Santa who enters as the children and families line the centre of the room.

“It's a wonderful opportunity for families who have members that have autism,” says Brianne Horner, a mother of two autistic children.

“It really gives us gives the kids and the adults a chance to just decompress and feel at home and feel free from like scrutiny. They're really catering to the kids and the adults’ needs in terms of their sensory issues.”

Two of the happiest people in attendance were Paul and Ruth Wannamaker.

A married couple for 23 years, both have autism, and live at Jake’s House in Lucan, Ont.

Married couple of 23 years Ruth and Paul Wannamaker show a photo of themselves at the Jake’s House Holiday Party in London, Ont. on Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023 (Brent Lale/CTV News London)

"We both like it because they are really nice to us,” says Ruth.

“It’s like family,” says Paul.

“That's what Jake’s House feel like no matter where go.”

This is the second time the holiday party has come to London, Ont. but the first that it has been in a venue large enough to accommodate the demand.

“Jake's House is about inclusivity community and love and that's what you'll feel here at the Jake’s House Holiday Party,” says Joseph.  

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