Mom says mall Santa photo op's a bad memory

MaryEllen Burke, 27, left, and brother Kevin, 25, MaryEllen Burke, 27, left, and brother Kevin, 25, photographed by their mother Lori Burke on her cell phone without a Smith Haven Mall Santa. (Dec. 3, 2013) Photo Credit: Lori Burke

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The mother of two severely disabled adults thinks a Santa at Smith Haven Mall should be on the naughty list after trying to avoid a photo with them.

"You can take a picture of the scene," Lori Burke, 48, of St. James, recalled him saying as he rushed past her daughter MaryEllen, 27, and son, Kevin, 25, in their wheelchairs on Tuesday.

Burke said she was celebrating her daughter's birthday at the mall, a rare day when both her disabled children felt well.

They were not expected to live beyond age 2, Burke said. A rare genetic disorder left them unable to speak and see, but they can hear and understand somewhat, the mother said.

When they passed the Santa station, no one was in line, Burke said: "When I asked, 'You want to see Santa, MaryEllen?' she got excited."

Burke said a sign asked visitors to refrain from taking cellphone photos, but she told Santa that his camera wasn't high enough to get her children's faces while in their wheelchairs. She said she asked to take a shot with her cellphone held above their heads.

That's when Santa rushed to the cashier, Burke said, and after explaining herself again, Santa went back to his couch and looked downward for the photo.

"He did everything to squiggle by and not look at them or touch them or talk to them," Burke said. "If it was a healthy kid sitting there, I don't think he would have done that."

It happened so fast, Burke said, that she didn't get a chance to offer to pay or be told to pay.

She said she complained to the mall, but it was only when she posted her experience on the mall's Facebook page Wednesday night that she got a response. The Simon mall said the second of its two Santas welcomes disabled children, according the response shared by Burke.

The mall referred her to The Noerr Programs Corp. in Colorado, which provides Santas and apologized, offering to pay for a photo package with a different St. Nick, Burke said.

Neither Noerr nor the mall were available for comment Thursday night.

"We're not looking for a freebie," Burke said.

If she met the Santa again, she said, she'd tell him, "You don't know what it took for us to be here today. The fact that they're still living and able to see Santa is a huge miracle."

With Zachary Dowdy

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