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The City Journals

Community members bring joy to holidays for Jordan Valley School students

Dec 02, 2016 02:54PM ● By Julie Slama

Neighbors and former schoolmates, Chloe McKeever and Connor Stevenson were previous Jordan Valley homecoming queen and king. (Nevah Stevenson/parent)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Traditions are big at Jordan Valley School and students look forward to them every year, said the school’s former principal John Gardner, who helped establish some of the winter traditions more than 30 years ago, which the school still celebrates.

“It’s fun for the kids and a great way for them to have some of the same social experiences as other students are having,” said Gardner.

Jordan Valley serves students with 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 and their families.

However, these disabilities don’t change the joy these students feel when receiving Thanksgiving baskets or attending the annual winter Homecoming Dance.

For about 20 years, St. James Episcopal Church has provided Jordan Valley students in need with Thanksgiving baskets, filled with food items and gift cards donated from the local Dan’s Fresh Market to make their Thanksgiving meals complete.

“The whole parish helps out,” said youth leader Terry Palmer, who coordinated this year’s efforts. “I didn’t realize how important the need was until we delivered to the classrooms. Some of these students have grandparents raising them or their families are refugees. This is just something we can do that’s fun and wanting them to have a better holiday.”

Former Jordan Valley teacher and current school secretary Gay Smullen said the school established a contact with the church in an emergency situation when they needed a safe place for their students. Since then, she said, it has blossomed into a “wonderful relationship.”

“Every year, they bring over gift cards for turkeys, pie shells, vegetables, stuffing fixings and everything imaginable for a Thanksgiving dinner. But it’s not just that — they’ve provided some of our students with job site training, hosted trunk-or-treats for our students and have become a safe and caring place for our students,” she said.

Principal Mark Donnelly said the tradition and assistance is much appreciated.

“We’re really thankful for St. James and the care and support they’ve shown our students year after year,” he said.

A 32-year-tradition is the winter Homecoming dance, where older students and alumni are invited to spend a night dancing to the music provided by the group Family and Friends. The annual dance, this year held on Dec. 8, also includes the crowning of the homecoming king and queen and a chance to meet Santa Claus.

“The students have fun dancing and we crown a king and queen and give them a sash and corsage, just as their peers. These kids are having a blast,” Donnelly said, adding that the king and queen have their own dance to “The Greatest Love of All.” 

What makes it more meaningful, he said, is when invited youth from local churches come to interact with Jordan Valley students.

“It’s a special moment when their peer may ask them to dance and bring them out to the dance floor. Everyone is out there dancing together, having a great time,” he said.

Gardner agrees. “It’s awesome. They come, treat them like good friends and just make the party fun for everyone.”

Gardner said it’s not only fun for him to see the alumni, some in their 50s and 60s, return to the school for the dance, but also for them to interact with the band.

“I miss seeing them. When I look back and realize I’ve spent most of the 22 years getting to know them at the school, it makes the dance that much more meaningful. And there’s a bond with the musicians as well since it has been the same band since we started this. The band treats them so well and the students and alumni look forward to seeing them every year,” he said.

Jay Christensen, who leads the group, said it began with a guitar, bass and drum trio who played classic rock ‘n roll. 

The group now includes his wife, Julie, on vocals, as well as Ralph Frost on bass, Jim Colby on drums and Christensen on guitar. This year, Mike Cottam will fill in on drums.

“The alumni all meet us and are glad to have us back,” Christensen said. “One follow picks up my first guitar and strums it right alongside of me. They’re happy and having fun. We just hold this date every year and I’ll be sad when and if the date comes and we can’t make it. We haven’t missed one year and the night just goes by way too quick. We come out there to play, but we’re treated like heroes or rock stars. When really, it’s the parents and the teachers who are here every day that are making a difference, who are the heroes. And more so, it’s the students who are enduring everything, but are still smiling who are truly the heroes.”