It can break your heart.
Or warm it.
You scan the young people in wheelchairs, their bodies twisted from cerebral palsy and other afflictions, their daily survival dependent upon others. And then you realize they're dressed like Marmaduke or some fairy princess or a cow — and that they're having a great time.
There's nothing like Halloween for healthy boys and girls who run from house to house collecting free candy! But what about the kids who can't run?
In Pasco and Hernando counties, a kindly 80-year-old man has devoted the past 23 years to making sure disabled children and young adults share in the joy.
Hal Steffes has had plenty of help from his wife, Mary Ann, 85, and their fellow Aripeka Elks, but there's a reason they named the party after him. This is his passion, the reason he removes the oxygen tank that helps ease his breathing. After six back surgeries that date back even further than the Halloween parties, Steffes ought to be in a wheelchair himself. But for this one night, he ignores the constant pain and keeps his eye on a goal:
"I want to make it to 25 years,'' he said Thursday as more than 400 special needs kids and their parents or caregivers crowded into the lodge on Denton Avenue in Hudson.
Many of the Elks volunteers got into the spirit with costumes. They decorated the hall with spiders and ghosts and jack-o'-lanterns. They cooked and delivered hot dogs and pizza and sodas. They manned a Halloween "village'' where each guest could stop and trick-or-treat. The village started out as cardboard refrigerator boxes years ago, before Elks members constructed a permanent facility out of wood, with 16 windows that swing open so "witches'' and "goblins'' and other scary creatures can dispense candy.
Clowns painted faces and made balloon animals while an announcer on stage called out numbers until every single child had a toy. Steffes started buying the gifts the day after last year's party with money donated by Elks members and many merchants in the two counties.
They didn't pick a "best costume,'' but everyone in the building seemed to be wowed by Amber Fletcher, a 14-year-old freshman at River Ridge High School in New Port Richey. Her stepdad, Chuck McGuire, used cardboard to transform her wheelchair into a car he labeled "Zombie Racing.''
Amber and her mother, Karen, have been coming to this party for 10 years, and McGuire has used his construction skills to create a "ghost rider'' three-wheel motorcycle, a coffin and now a hot rod that spews smoke (dry ice) from pipes that look heavy but actually weigh only a few ounces.
Sometimes Amber doesn't want to be so scary. She was a swan princess one year.
After the last child left the party, Hal and Mary Ann Steffes made their way up to their home in Spring Hill. They marveled at their volunteers. They felt satisfied emotionally, but then the pain rumbled up Hal's back, making sleep impossible. Still, he knew he had to get back to the lodge in the morning. He had to get started buying toys for next year.
A noble goal for a good man.