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Valentine's dance for 'exceptionals'

The special education master degree program at Southern Oregon University had a successful Valentine’s Day dance for adults with special needs last weekend.

The dance has been an annual tradition for several decades, giving adults with disabilities a safe space to socialize, a rarity in the Rogue Valley, organizer Andrea Tary said.

“This population of people experience very high levels of social isolation, and the goal of the dance is just to get people out into the community and socializing with each other, and with other adults,” Tary said.

She said there were about 200 attendees this year who had a blast dancing, snacking and making Valetine’s crafts.

She said organizing social events is an important teaching tool because students in the program are taught to teach in a holistic way.

“It’s not just academics,” Tary said. “We need to socialize in order to be happy and to be at our best, and the dance is a way to give this population a place to be comfortable and socialize freely with no judgment.”

She said although the cohort was hoping for matchmaking, they know that this level of socialization may be intimidating and some attendees may have never experienced something as intimate as a Valentine’s dance, so social stories were set up across the room.

Tary explained that social stories are used in special education teaching to help children learn social skills through a variety of techniques, often accompanied by illustrations.

Basically, it’s a sign that has tips and reminders to complete a social action. So, in this case there were cards set on the tables suggesting tips for approaching someone for a chat or a dance such as “look at them, smile, go say hello or make them a Valentine.”

She said the event was fun for everyone involved. There was a DJ, prizes, food, drinks, and everything needed for a good, old-fashioned semi-formal dance.

Local businesses such as Thai Pepper, Caldera, Crumble Cookies and Costco donated everything from bouquets of flowers and gift certificates to give away to sodas and snacks.

She said the special ed program cohort who organized the event this year is made up of 12 full-time students with a handful of students taking the program through other means such as emergency teacher licensing.

To receive funding and location space from the university, the cohort must make up a club each year, which has been dubbed the Council for Exceptional Students, of which Tary is the president.

She explained that the council’s main focus is to host the dance each year, but they also participate in the Festival of Lights parade, hand out books to encourage literacy among children and occasionally fundraise independently for the dance.

“It’s fun for them to have a place for people to accept them for their strength that they bring to the table and not have people only focus on their disabilities, which really happens a lot in our society,” Tary said.

Co-organizer and vice president of the council Kristen Ziemer said the teachers of the program encourage the master program students to use the term exceptionalities instead of disabilities for this reason.

Ziemer said the dance was for ages 18 and up, but it’s important to offer socializing events for everyone no matter what age or ability.

“Life needs socialization,” Ziemer said. “By providing opportunities for adults to socialize you give them more opportunities for building friendships and sustaining them. Also, socializing supports skills that could encourage employment opportunities and inclusion for all. It is so important that everyone feels included in this world.”

Ziemer said the highlights of the evening for her were the photo booth and the last dance of the evening — the conga line.

Ziemer left her position as an educational assistant with the Southern Oregon Education Service District to pursue the one-year master’s degree program to make an even larger difference in the Rogue Valley and beyond.

“Organizing the dance has been a great way to connect to the community in a way I’ve never done before, and I’m so blown away by the generosity of businesses and people,” Tary said. “The cohort was so grateful of the gratitude of parents and caregivers for us and for the university.”

Contact Ashland Tidings freelance reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at caitlin.fowlkes@gmail.com.

Kristen Ziemer photoAbout 200 attended the the annual Valentine's Day dance hosted by the SOU special education master degree program.