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Founder of special needs Halloween party in Hudson passes the torch

HUDSON — Hal Steffes was at the lodge before dawn Thursday, double checking the candy count, making sure there were enough toys. He works year-round for this one day, a Halloween party for special needs children and adults. Later that afternoon, more than 400 guests would be coming and Steffes wanted to make sure everything was perfect for this final time.

Steffes, 82, started this event 25 years ago at the Aripeka Elks Lodge 2520 in Hudson. He is a quiet man who simply says creating this event — where kids and adults, many in wheelchairs, some severely disabled, can dress up and trick-or-treat in a safe place built specifically for them, with a raffle where everyone gets a toy and there is enough pizza and hot dogs and fries and soda to go around, where the love and kindness in the air feels tangible — was the right thing to do.

"It is a thing that is dear to me," Steffes said. He said he got the idea for the event from an Elks lodge in Michigan. But it wasn't until he was doing it for years that he realized it might be more personal. He and his first wife had a daughter, Diane Marie, who was mentally challenged. When Steffes and his wife divorced, she and their daughter moved to Canada. Steffes said the last time he saw his daughter was when she was 10. Then she vanished. He said he tried to find her and hired an investigator, but never could find her. That still hurts.

"I think of her," he said.

Steffes has been talking about retiring for years, but kept pushing himself for one more year, for the kids. He lives in chronic, searing pain from half a dozen back surgeries and, in recent years, has dealt with congestive heart failure. He's on oxygen and his doctors want him to slow down. On Thursday he had a bandage covering his nose where skin cancer had been removed. His current wife, Mary Ann, 87, has been in poor health for years too. Their physical limits are frustrating for both of them. They want to be active. Often, they can't.

But for this, Steffes pushed himself. He was determined to make it to his 25th anniversary in organizing the Halloween event and he made it — Thursday marked that anniversary and his last year as event organizer. He wouldn't elaborate on the physical toll the party has taken.

"This year," he said, "it was harder."

When he started the event, the indoor trick-or-treat village was created out of old refrigerator boxes. Then some volunteers built a village of store fronts out of wood, which guests wind through to get their candy. The Elks members dress up, though their costumes are generally not as elaborate as the special needs children and adults; some of the guests plan their costumes for months and, on the party day, they start lining up outside the lodge well before the doors open. This is a highlight not only in their lives, but an annual reunion for parents and caregivers.

Steffes is reserved on what it means to him to be able to do this, to be the one to create this bit of happiness for so many. He has loved them and, as many are fragile, he has mourned when they die. He will always remember one child, Jennifer, a tiny blond girl who wore an angel outfit every year. She came for five or six years and was so sweet. She loved to be held and rocked. Then she didn't show up one year and Steffes learned she passed away.

"It hit me hard," is all he says about it. He wouldn't get close to the children after that, just working in the background for them.

During all these years, his home in Spring Hill has been the warehouse of the candy and toys he accumulates. He constantly asks businesses and people for donations and hoards the money so he can hit the after-Christmas sales, hunting for marked down dolls and stuffed animals.

He might still do some of that next year. He's not sure.

"I'll just get involved a little bit," Steffes said. "I can't put it all on my shoulders."

Some months ago, the lodge voted to name the event after him: The Hal Steffes Aripeka Elks Special Children's Halloween Party. This means a lot to him, that this thing he's devoted so much of himself to will continue. The children showed up early again this year, grinning pumpkins and scarecrows and a knight, and Steffes walked outside to greet them one last time.

Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6229.

. How to help

Keep this going

If you want to donate to next year's Aripeka Elks' Halloween party for disabled children and adults, call the lodge at (727) 863-2520.

Founder of special needs Halloween party in Hudson passes the torch 10/25/12 [Last modified: Thursday, October 25, 2012 8:42pm]
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