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The City Journals

Jordan Valley Halloween Traditions Brings Smiles from Students

Oct 04, 2016 03:40PM ● By Julie Slama

Jordan Valley students receive pumpkins each year from South Park Academy students, who grow the pumpkins and have their teachers deliver them to the school. Students, with the help of faculty, go to their pumpkin patch and pick the pumpkin they want. (Gay Smullen/Jordan Valley School)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

For more than 30 years, Halloween has been big at Jordan Valley School.  

A parade and pumpkin-decorating contest, for starters, may seem similar to activities at other schools, but for a school that serves students with severe multiple disabilities, it becomes an important school community event, Principal Mark Donnelly said.

“We have a Halloween parade in the morning that has an amazing turnout from the students’ families and the community and the students just love it,” he said. “They’re able to dress up in costume and many families help so the costume may include the wheelchairs if students are in one.”

Donnelly leads the parade throughout the school as he and the office staff dress up together. Last Halloween, they were Scooby Doo’s gang. Students have dressed as minions, cowboys, chefs, dinosaurs, a refrigerator, a kitten who had her wheelchair as a basket, a driver who had his wheelchair as a car and more.

The day progresses to include a Halloween dance where students are allowed to move to the music in the school’s south media area, Donnelly said.

“Students are able to get out of the classroom, release their energy and express themselves through dance. Our music therapist is the deejay who plays the latest pop music along with Halloween music and students are able to show off their costumes,” he said.

A Halloween costume contest also takes place in the south media area where both students and faculty are judged by members of the school community for prizes such as the craziest, silliest, scariest and most creative. Winners may receive some soft candy or a pudding package.

Another judging activity, which in the past has included the PTA president, Canyons School District special education administrative assistant and other community members as judges, is the pumpkin contest. Recently changed from a door contest, the pumpkin contest encourages faculty to boost morale amongst themselves and students, Gay Smullen said, who taught at the school for 22 years before becoming the office administrative assistant eight years ago.

“This is huge and they love it,” she said. “They can carve or write or decorate the pumpkin and the students are getting to participate in activities that other school children do. This is their chance to be able to relate to their peers.”

Jordan Valley students also receive pumpkins from student inmates at South Park Academy, who grow the pumpkins, and their teachers deliver them to the school. Students, with the help of faculty, go to their pumpkin patch and point at or look at the pumpkin they want.

“Their faces just light up with these pumpkins,” Smullen said. “Halloween is an important and beloved school-wide activity here and it brings so many people together.”

Smullen said that when the inmates brought in the pumpkins, she’d tear up.

“It was so moving and I don’t cry a lot, but when I saw these huge, tattooed inmates being brought to tears when they saw the Jordan Valley students light up at the pumpkins they received, it was really emotional. The inmates realized that they, too, had the opportunity to help serve our students,” she said.

Smullen said the traditions began under the second principal of the school, John Gardner, who loved Halloween, and tied it into improving the quality of life for the students.  

Jordan Valley students have severe multiple disabilities including autism, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, seizure disorders, communication impairments, genetic disorders and syndromes, deaf-blindness and students who are extremely medically fragile. The goal at Jordan Valley School is to improve the quality of life for students, age five to 22, and their families.

“It’s just a great opportunity for our kids to do things similar to their siblings. These kids don’t get to go to many football games or participate in after-school activities, but here they can dress up in amazing costumes, go to a pumpkin patch, decorate a pumpkin, dance and do some of the special activities associated with Halloween,” Smullen said.