The Prom at Stephen’s Place | The Columbian

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

Published: June 3, 2017, 7:22 PM

The Saturday afternoon prom at Stephen’s Place was completely normal. Lots of joy and laughter, lots of flowers and balloons, lots of loud music and leaping about on the dance floor. Plus, of course, a smattering of anxieties, freak-outs and meltdowns. That’s how proms are.

The special thing about the Stephen’s Place prom was its guests of honor, people of all ages with developmental delays and other disabilities. Some of the prom attendees live at Stephen’s Place, a residential facility on Ellsworth Road that was built by the Kuni Foundation of Vancouver and opened in 2015; many more came thanks to networking by a community group called Special Celebrations.

Special Celebrations got its start because of the time that not one guest showed up for Tristan Van Pelt’s birthday party, and he wound up weeping under the kitchen table. His mom, Theresa, vowed to not let it happen again — not for her own child, nor for anybody else’s.

Life can be isolated for people with autism and their parents, Van Pelt said. “Even some family members distance themselves because they don’t understand some of the behaviors, or just can’t get comfortable with it,” she said.

Van Pelt started meeting her peers — and hearing similar stories — at special-needs events and via an informal local network called Amazing Moms. She launched Special Celebrations in December 2015 as a regular, free outing on the first Saturday of every month: a “make and take” at Christmas, a “sweetheart social” for Valentine’s Day, a harvest festival in the fall and a talent show. Still taking shape is a science fair — because that’s what all the other kids get to do, Van Pelt said.

That’s the point of Special Celebrations, she said: to provide children with developmental and other disabilities the very same life experiences as anyone else. Now, she said, when there’s an upcoming birthday party, the word goes out fast: “We have a 13-year-old who loves Legos. Who can come?”

“That means more to me than anything,” said mom Holly Swensen, who was busy snapping photos of giggling girls getting dolled up in the beauty shop. “These moms feel like my sisters. I can call them when I’ve had a rough day. They’re the ones who understand.”

Special Celebrations is an informal group, not a nonprofit company, and its outings and events are paid for entirely by donations and occasional big gifts — like the use of the Stephen’s Place facility. “They offered us this beautiful place. We’re so grateful,” Van Pelt said.

Attending Special Celebrations is always free. “I don’t ever want anyone worrying about that,” Van Pelt said.

Out of shadows

“On weekends I usually stay inside,” said 16-year-old Kat Wheeler while in line to get her hair and makeup done. “I stay in a shadow-like corner and play games. This is the first time I’ve gone to a prom.” “Or any party,” added grandmother Sherry Stickney, who raises Kat. Things were running slightly late and Stickney was a little worried how Kat would handle the delay on top of all the noise and stimulation — but Kat appeared cool and cheerful while waiting her turn in the crowded hallway.

More tentative was Nikki Lydick, looking fabulous but feeling shy in a sparkling, black dress. “Nikki is extremely nervous, but she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” mother Jenny Lydick said. “She doesn’t get too many reasons to dress up.”

Once the preliminaries were done and the main doors opened up, the Stephen’s Place prom continued to resemble any other prom. There were more girls than boys in attendance and more girls letting gleefully loose on the dance floor. A few boys had summoned the nerve to ask out dates; others played it cooler, simply “checking” to see if their favorite female friends would be attending.

Nervous as she obviously was, Nikki Lydick had courageously asked out her favorite guy, Tristan Long. His reaction, according to Jenny: “Mostly he agreed to it.”

But when Tristan showed up, he’d gotten a haircut and shaved his beard — for the first time ever. The prom was a very normal, very special occasion.

Original article can be found here.