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A life of struggle, a night of joy

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By JAN GLIDEWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 27, 2002

Juggling prizes from a variety of games and trying to chat while helping the three youngest of her six children get situated with drinks and hot dogs, Elizabeth Klecha gave in to a fresh wave of pain and broke down for just a second -- all she could afford.

"He was just everything to us," she said, recalling how her younger brother, Brian, 31, died of a stroke five months ago and how she just spent a stint at All Children's Hospital with his namesake, her 6-year-old son, who nearly died last week.

"If he had," she said, "they would just have to have buried me between him and his uncle. I don't think I can take much more."

[Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
Zoran Curic seems satisfied with his clown look. Judy Santostefano painted his face at the Aripeka Elks Lodge 2520 Halloween party in Hudson.
Klecha and her three disabled children (three older ones are healthy) were attending an annual event that takes note of the rigors that mentally and physically disabled children and adults endure 365 days per year.

The Aripeka Elks Lodge 2520 Halloween party, a tradition now in its 14th year, fills the Elks' large hall to capacity every year.

This year, 247 mentally and physically disabled children, 75 of their siblings and 222 of their caretakers packed in for fun, games, hot dogs, sodas and safe trick-or-treating in a mock village where volunteers doled out candy and other treats.

"The first year we did this, we had cardboard refrigerator boxes on the floor for a village," said event chairman Hal Steffes, who brought the idea home from a visit to a Michigan Elks lodge in the 1980s.

Now there is a complete minivillage with accessible doorways and windows from which treats are dispensed, a platoon of clowns entertaining throughout the hall and a relatively scary vampire in a coffin at the door, played according to the sensibilities of those who approach.

"If I squeeze one more in," Steffes said, "I might be in trouble with the fire marshal, although he would probably have as much trouble kicking them out as I had letting them in."

Believe it or not, there are those whose children don't meet the criteria for the event (most are referred by schools) who try to crash the party every year, requiring a careful identification procedure at the door and some last-minute appeals.

After dealing with a critically ill child and the aftermath of her brother's death, Klecha almost didn't get in, because she had been staying at the Ronald McDonald House in Tampa and failed to mail back the invitation in time.

"When you hear six kids, one near death, just lost her main support," Steffes said, "what are you going to do? If we aren't here for her, we aren't here for anyone."

Michael Cella, 14, in full Harry Potter wizard regalia, can't speak but can signal "yes" and "no" with a raised finger.

And despite the cerebral palsy that limits his movements and expressions, he isn't missing a bit of the activity that swirls around him.

His adoptive mother, Jeanne, and a nurse hover nearby, occasionally moving his wheelchair to change the view.

Small victories in Michael's life are celebrated with trips to a store where he can listen to music on headphones and add to his growing collection of compact discs.

With some proceeds from its bingo operation; tons of donations from area merchants, banks and other institutions; and a full year of planning, the Elks party is the hottest ticket in the community of those whose lives are filled with struggle accomplishing things most of us take for granted.

The club also makes annual donations to the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches and the Angelus, a group home for the handicapped whose residents start looking forward to next year's party at the end of this one.

Just before I left, I stood watching a young man with Down's syndrome gently holding the hand of an Angelus resident and chatting with Pasco Sheriff Bob White.

White is a devout man and is not generally given to hyperbole, but his voice cracked slightly as he looked around him and said, "As a society, we often avoid looking at things that make the conscience bleed. These people don't. It's almost angelic."

He would have had trouble finding an argument.

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