Sharon Gary-Dill (standing) danced with Sierra Stanley as hundreds of special needs Atlantans and their caregivers celebrated together at the Omni Hotel in Atlanta during the Christmas party for Atlanta’s special citizens 50th anniversary. (Photo by Phil Skinner)
Photo: Phil Skinner
Photo: Phil Skinner

Christmas spirit shines in party for special-needs Atlantans

Santa Claus has arrived with a baby elephant, in a horse-drawn carriage, and under a motorized/super-sized 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 each other, giving high-fives and then filling the dance floor, faces lit with joy, “fills our hearts, our souls,” she said.

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