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Fun Life’s Fancy Dance

Community: Local club provides opportunity for children and young adults to make friends

Posted: June 5, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Updated: June 5, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Fun Life director John Pantellas, left, dances with daughter Grace, 6, at Fun Life’s annual Fancy Dance at Northpark clubhouse. Fun Life is the special needs arm of Christian organization, Young Life.

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Alex Brown made her way down her staircase in a flowing ivory-color dress. Her hair was curled, her nails were polished and uncommonly; her face was powdered with makeup.

"She looked like an angel," said Brown's mother Madeline Brown.

The Sand Canyon parents drove their 22-year-old daughter to the Fun Life Fancy Dance on May 21 at the North Park Club House in Valencia. "I think she loved getting out of the car and seeing everybody, and everybody seeing her," Madeline Brown said.

Moments like those don't come around often for Alex Brown, who is moderately to severely mentally disabled. She has attended special-education courses since she was 3 years old, her parents said.

Alex Brown watched her younger brother attend proms and formals throughout high school. As a home-schooled student, Alex had only been to one dance before.

"She saw (her brother) do a lot of things she didn't get to do," Madeline Brown said.

During dinner, Alex Brown sat between her parents. Her wide eyes took in the groups of chatty teens surrounding her.

Alex Brown was on the dance floor no more than a half hour after the Fancy Dance dinner. Her hips swayed and she smiled at friends while dancing to "Old Time Rock ‘n' Roll."

For Alex Brown, "making friends" was the best part of the dance. Her recent participation in Fun Life has begun to bring out socialization in her that her parents have never witnessed before.

Fun Life is a local club that gives kids and young adults with physical and mental disabilities an opportunity to have fun, try new things, build their self-esteem, make new friends and learn about God.

Volunteer leader and administrator Nancy Pantellas said many of the teens and young adults don't have many friendships before they start participating in Fun Life. But parents and leaders see that change rather quickly over the course of a few weeks.

"There has not been a Fun Life event in five years where a parent hasn't stood at the door crying because their child is socializing," Pantellas said.

Acceptance, friendship in Fun Life
Fun Life is an arm of Young Life, an international Christian organization that reaches out to youth and teaches them about God.

Fun Life is the local area name for Young Life's Capernaum Project, which has reached out to kids with disabilities since it began in 1986 in San Jose.

Nancy and John Pantellas, of Valencia, started the local club five years ago with just four kids in a garage. Now the Pantellas see more than 140 teens and young adults participate throughout the year. Fun Life has two clubs: one for junior high and another for high school and beyond.

"The obvious purpose is to share God and God's love with them but also to give them a purpose in their lives," said John Pantellas, Capernaum director for the greater Los Angeles region.

Part of fostering that purpose is providing a loving community, they said.

"They are so hungry for friendship and so desiring for real genuine relationships," Nancy Pantellas said. "They have no barriers or walls, just unconditional love."

Fun Life is also about letting young adults with disabilities feel included. "A place where they can be themselves because of their disabilities and can do things that other kids can't do," she said.

Volunteer leaders provide that accepting atmosphere in regular Friday dinner meetings and at special events, such as dances or summer camp.

"We make sure our kids are doing what other kids are doing," Nancy Pantellas said. "If a girl in a wheelchair wants to get on a zipline, we'll figure out a way to get her on that zipline."

Dancing the night away
Fun Lifers look forward to Fancy Dance for months leading up to the event. For many, it's a time to let loose on the dance floor without any reservations.

Matt Adams, of Canyon Country, said he looks forward to the dance for the girls and the dancing but mostly the dancing.

"It gets your energy up," Adams, 22, said. "I do krump dancing, break dancing and the crip walk."

Cesar Loyola, of Valencia, moseyed around the dance floor snapping photos of his friends.

By midnight, those pictures would be posted on the 22-year-old's Facebook page for all his friends to see, said his mother and Fun Life volunteer Anna Bettencourt. Loyola is autistic, and was one of the first kids in the program five years ago.

Since then, he has gained invaluable relationships and a desire to be surrounded by friends.

"I used to never go anywhere," Loyola said.

"This program has brought so much socialization out of him," his mom added.

For nearly two hours the teens and young adults let out their cha-cha, disco, YMCA, swing dance moves and more.

The song "We Like to Party" blasted over the speakers. Adams pumped his fist in the air and jumped up and down.

On the other side of the dance floor, a train had formed. Alex Brown, still smiling, jumped into the train behind her mother.

Alex Brown's mother Madeline Brown later said that she and her husband have tried to place Alex in social settings before but they haven't worked out.

Fun Life works because those involved are "very loving people," Madeline said. Seeing their daughter engage in such a social event is not something the Browns have seen in the past, she said.

"We loved to see it," she said.

Young Life Santa Clarita Valley's phone number is (661) 257-6723. The website is www.younglife.org.

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