Special needs Halloween party forges bonds

Annual event brings together members of tightly knit community

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter



More gatherings

Throughout Clark County, there are a number of regular events for people with special needs and their caregivers. The events are held regularly to give developmentally disabled folks a social and physical outlet. Participants and organizers of the events say they create a family-like sense of community.

The events include:

Gymnastics at the Naydenov Gymnastics & Fun Center, 7-8:30 p.m. every Wednesday, 5313 N.E. 94th Ave., Vancouver. Cost: $39 a month.

Dances at the Luepke Senior Center, 5-7 p.m. the first Friday and last Saturday of every month, 1009 E. McLoughlin Blvd., Vancouver. Cost: $7. The cost includes a hot dog and a soda.

“All for One” potlucks and spiritual meetings, 4-6 p.m., twice monthly at Messiah Lutheran Church, 905 N.W. 94th St., Vancouver. Cost: Free with a dish. For more information, call Carol White at 360-798-3642.

RIDGEFIELD — As strains of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" pulsated through the makeshift dance hall Saturday, the low rumble of dancing feet picked up the pace, as costumed revelers stomped and swayed to the music.

On the dance floor in a converted garage, Popeye, Jack Sparrow, Batman and other pop culture figures cut the rug. Their moves were energetic — hands hoisted and waving, hips undulating — as they sashayed beneath giant spiders and other creepy crawlies.

Despite all the Halloween hallmarks being in place — costumes, dancing and spooky decorations — this was a Halloween party like no other. Behind the masks and costumes were people with special needs, who regularly come together to have a good time.

In its third year, the Halloween party is the brainchild of Mary Siebert, a postal worker whose daughter, Madeline, 17, is developmentally delayed. Siebert holds the party at her rural Ridgefield property, which she decks out in Halloween ornaments. There's a haunted chicken coop, with a Freddy Krueger mannequin hiding in the corner, and even a spirit-infested forest.

Watching the festivities, Siebert explained why she hosted the event.

"These kids are separated from the start (of their lives)," she said amid the ruckus. "So it's hard for them to make friends."

But inside Siebert's garage there are dozens of friends, laughing and sharing inside jokes. Many of them have grown up together in a tightly knit community that feeds off gatherings and events.

More than 60 people came to Siebert's gathering Saturday from across Clark County.

The special needs community in Clark County is a close one, Siebert said. That's why the idea for the Halloween party wasn't hers alone. She received help from Shauna and Jason Scott, who serve as caregivers for a girl with Down syndrome.

They're all heavily involved in the Special Olympics,

with Jason Scott coaching various sports, including basketball and softball.

The activities are important both for people with special needs and their caregivers, who bond over their shared experiences, Siebert said.

"You get really close to the other parents in this group," she said, adding that it's important for networking purposes. "Sometimes, you can feel like you're really isolated in what you're experiencing."

The caregivers share tips on how to look after young people with special needs. Together, they've built a network that's based on shared experiences, Siebert said.

Word of the gatherings often spreads through Sheri Bousquet's Special Olympics gymnastics class, held once a week at the Naydenov Gymnastics & Fun Center in Vancouver.

Bousquet has been coaching gymnastics for the Special Olympics for years. She has 17 participants, who range in age from teenagers to people in their 30s, all of whom have special needs.

For Bousquet, the goal of her gymnastics class is simple: "We want to make sure disabled people have access to what everyone has access to," she said.

At the Halloween party, that meant music, dancing and fun among people who know each other well.

Across the dance floor, a voice rang out. "What's up, girlfriend?" The voice belonged to the party's disc jockey, Mike Nguyen, 27, who seemed to know everyone in the building. He was calling out to one of his many friends who just walked through the doors.

Like many of the attendees, Nguyen has Down syndrome, a chromosomal condition that can cause both physical and mental health problems for those who have it.

But Nguyen functions at a high enough level that he drives to events, where he works spinning tunes.

Although he's only worked as a DJ for four years, Nguyen manipulates the digital turntable like a professional, mixing the tunes effortlessly.

He regularly plays music for dances at the Luepke Senior Center. The Halloween party gives him the opportunity to incorporate some different songs into his repertoire.

"Some people are picky customers. But most are easy to please," said Nguyen, adding that he loves to play the dances. "I try to be a fun guy."

For Richard White, whose son Andrew, 31, has Down syndrome, the closely knit special needs community has provided an outlet he never thought existed.

Andrew participates in gymnastics and regularly attends dances at the Marshall Community Center.

White said he was nervous to let Andrew participate in the dances at first. They were so different from what he expected.

"It just blows your mind," White said. "But now I see beauty in it. It's just a slice of life you can't experience anywhere else. At first I thought, 'no, no, no — I can't let my son go here.'"

As partygoers cut loose to Trace Adkins' "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk," White said he quickly got over his concerns. White said he witnessed so much diversity and acceptance at the dances that he eventually wholeheartedly embraced them.

At the Halloween party, where anyone could change their outward appearance, these kids were just being themselves.

"Now," White said, "I've realized there's beauty in it."

Tyler Graf: 360-735-4517; http://www.twitter.com/col_smallcities;tyler.graf@columbian.com.