The jingle of bells caused heads to turn at the annual Independence Network holiday party on Dec. 16. Santa and The Golden Tones arrived at the cafeteria at Wilson High School for a surprise visit and an impromptu concert. It was the icing on the cake for the program’s director Daya Sanchez.
“It’s really nice. It’s a total surprise,” said Sanchez, who grinned from ear to ear as she watched the senior singing group perform.
For many local adults living with disabilities, the Independence Network serves as a family and community where they otherwise might not have one. The program, run through the Santa Clara Unified School District (SCUSD), creates a place of belonging for the students and something they can count on.
Peggy, Richard and their son Joshua have belonged to the group for more than 17 years. For Peggy and Richard, they find support from other parents who live with similar circumstances. For Joshua, it’s a second family.
“He really enjoys it because he’s with all of his friends,” said Peggy when asked about the annual holiday party. “They exchange ornaments and they just have a really good time. And then they do the whole Christmas singing and all that sort of stuff. So, he really enjoys all that.”
This year, Joshua’s birthday landed on the day of the holiday party. Peggy and Richard brought lunch for everyone at the party, adding to the excitement.
Teacher Brian Darby, who is retiring after 34 years in the program, says this year’s holiday party is extra special.
“You see the smile. With all the issues with life…We’ve almost closed, the pandemic and all that. Just a smile and overcoming of the human spirit, their desire to learn…they’re [the students are] just good,” said Darby.
In addition to the surprise visit from the Golden Tones and Santa and a special lunch, the event included an ornament gift exchange, where each student received a new ornament and a special gift from Raj and Daljit Chahal.
“Usually, we do Thanksgiving, but this year, Raj had the flu after elections, so we decided [to do] this. Last year, we did the same thing, giving out the blankets,” said Daljit Chahal.
The Chahal family’s involvement in the program has become as much a tradition as the event itself. In years past, the couple has cooked and served a Thanksgiving meal for the students.
“They [the Chahals] used to do a Thanksgiving for us and then they started doing the Christmas,” said Darby. “They’re very giving people, extremely giving people. It’s really very kind. They are very kind and very supportive.”
Last year, because COVID delayed the celebration, a new tradition started. The Chahals purchased blankets for the students, caregivers and teachers. They did it again this year.
“They [the students] find a lot of joy and wonderment in it and they talk about it, especially the blankets,” said Darby. “These blankets are really nice and they talk about it all year long, actually. ‘I used my blanket for this.’ and ‘I did that.’ It’s a caring gift in that the blanket keeps you warm and the warmth of the caring and giving that they do goes on through the year. And they look forward to it every year.”