Special Celebrations – Everyone deserves to be celebrated! –
By Karen Krejcha –
Beautiful ideas often blossom from seeds of adversity.
Feeling social isolation due to disability is a lonely place to be. Theresa Van Pelt knows what it is like to feel this heartache. “My beautiful son, Tristan experiences autism. As he was growing up, I started to notice that our friends and extended family had started to distance themselves from our family. They did not understand his autism or anything that came with it, so slowly they all started to fade away.”
Despite Theresa and her husband, Jeremy positively advocating for Tristan to be included as he was growing up, things didn’t always work out as planned. One year at his birthday party, one of her worst fears as a mother happened and NO ONE who was invited came. Her son laid under their kitchen table crying, “Where are all the kids, mom?”
After that heartbreaking experience, Theresa began searching for positive ways that her family could find support and friendships for her son. “We found groups like The Miracle League of Vancouver WA, TOPSoccer and Autism Empowerment and started signing Tristan up for any activities we could. As we started meeting other families in the special needs community, I would hear stories just like ours where friends and families didn’t understand. I would hear parents share being stared at when trying to go to community events because their child had a difficult time or unusual behavior. I would hear about other children who had never been invited to a peer’s birthday party. That was when I decided that I wanted to do something to make sure that this never happens to my son, or anyone else again, if I could possibly help it.”
Theresa Van Pelt launched Special Celebrations in Vancouver, Washington in December 2015 as a grassroots group dedicated to supporting and celebrating individuals and families who identify with disabilities or special needs. Although activities are usually in Vancouver, their events and Facebook group include and welcome individuals and families from all around the Portland metro area.
As they celebrated their one-year anniversary in December 2016, Theresa reflected upon some of the free activities and events Special Celebrations has hosted within the last year.
Special Celebrations first event was called Santa’s Workshop, one they repeated on December 3rd, 2016. Shares Theresa, “This event was created so that our celebrators would have the opportunity to come and pick a gift for someone they love. We all find joy in doing something nice for others, and that is no different from our children who experience special needs or different abilities. Here they can make an ornament, pick from a selection of small gifts and wrap it all to save for their family’s holiday traditions!”
Theresa continues, “This year, we added an interactive Sensitive Santa to the event. He mingled with our celebrators rather than sitting for pictures. This was a big help for our kiddos of all ages who just don’t do well with waiting in lines for a long period of time.”
Making events as sensory-friendly and inclusive as possible so that everyone feels welcome and has an opportunity to participate meaningfully is extremely important to Theresa. “I really loved our Bingo event. We had some celebrators visit us from group homes in our community and seeing the joy of being around other people and then each and every one of them winning a prize; it was absolutely beautiful! I still remember the smiles and joy this simple event and giving of our time brought to them!”
Other events have included: a Valentine Carnival with specialty treats, an Easter Egg Hunt with sensory-friendly games and crafts and a visit from the Easter Bunny, a Mother’s Day Red Carpet Celebration, a Father’s Day Celebration, Summer Backyard Socials and a Talent Show.
Often children and adults who are sensitive to loud noises are not able to enjoy 4th of July. A creative solution for this was the “No Boom 4th of July Celebration” with family fun, games, prizes, visits from Star Wars characters, treats and snacks and a NO BOOM safe zone.
Special Celebrations most well-attended event was a free Harvest Festival in late October held at The Arc of Southwest Washington. There were indoor Trick-or-Treat tables, resources from community partners, games, crafts, costume prizes and a cake walk. Outside was a sensory break area, a bean bag toss and miniature golf.
Shares Theresa, “My son LOVES to go trick-or-treating. As he has gotten older and taller, we started getting comments from people like ‘Aren’t you a little old to be out here?’ While he never noticed this happening, it’s a hard thing for a parent to watch. He just wants to be out there having fun like all the other kids are and he doesn’t understand that teenagers start to do other things to have fun as they grow up. So the Harvest Festival was created to fill many needs.”
Local mom, Laura Shook has a son on the autism spectrum who thrives at the celebratory gatherings. “My son absolutely loves the fun events. He socially struggles really bad. At Special Celebrations events, he has a sense of belonging and that is huge for him. We are thankful for all they do!”
Special Celebrations eventually has a goal of becoming a nonprofit organization. Currently, they partner with a variety of other nonprofits and groups of parents within the local disability community. Theresa explained, “We have brought our crafts and activities to several other groups including Autism Empowerment, Amazing Moms, Club Upside and Special Education Parent Teacher Student Association of SW WA. We have been blessed by Autism Empowerment and Amazing Moms by them being two of our biggest supporters. Both have given several donations to our events.”
As Special Celebrations continues to grow and their events attract more people, donations of volunteer time, supplies and money will become more important. When asked about their biggest challenge, Theresa replied, “I would have to say being able to find the funding and support for each event. Because we are not yet an official nonprofit, we are not able to as easily seek donations within our community, so we rely on the support of our family, friends and group members. When we started, I had a running start with a craft room full of supplies. As that has been used, I often use my own money to supply events and work very hard to find and gather donations from other groups and families that support us. While I know our families all want to help and get involved as much as they can, it’s often hard to keep asking the same people for help. The positive side of that is that our families DO want to help when and where they can, so we have been able to keep all our events running on parent power so far!”
That parent power also provides joy to volunteers. When local mom and volunteer Miriah Sachs was asked what she liked about being a part of Special Celebrations, she shared, “They are helping me give back as so many others have given to me… And this allows me to build my village around my little family when before we were alone.”
To better support celebrating families, Theresa explains, “We ask our families a lot of questions and ask what kind of support they need to be successful at our events. We break larger events up into several different rooms when available. We also create social stories for our events to help prepare our guests for what to expect. My goal is to become a nonprofit organization, to reach more families and ultimately, employ our valuable members in our community who experience special needs.”
In addition to community events, Special Celebrations has a free birthday card program where celebrators who sign up get a free card in the mail each year. They also offer private parties for birthdays or other special occasions.
Special Celebrations is currently planning their 2017 calendar and are bringing back several events and creating a few new ones. When asked about expanding to other areas, Theresa shared, “We would absolutely love to become a model for others to start groups like ours in other areas. Volunteers and new celebrators are always welcome. Everyone deserves the chance to be celebrated!”
Want to party with Special Celebrations? Here is how to connect:
Email Theresa Van Pelt: firstname.lastname@example.org
Facebook: Special Celebrations – www.facebook.com/groups/specialcelebrations/
This article was originally published in the print and online Winter 2016 issue of Spectrums Magazine.