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Party is more treat than trick

It's hard to go trick-or-treating in a wheelchair.

Members of the Aripeka Elks No. 2520 know that. So their Annual Halloween Party focuses on "special children" _ mentally or physically disabled youngsters for whom the traditional Halloween customs might be difficult.

"This is a safe environment," said Phyllis Galluzzo of Spring Hill, who brought her three sons to the event. "What else could be better?"

The children certainly seem to feel that way. Galluzzo's 10-year-old son Owen has cerebral palsy, wears braces on his legs and needs a walker to get around. Yet he navigated the Elks' noisy, crowded hall Wednesday evening as surely as if it was his pirate's costume giving him the inspiration.

"He loves it here," his mother said. "He just feels right at home."

Children from schools in Pasco and Hernando counties were invited to the event, said Dick Postera, the party chairman. In addition to food, music, games and prizes, the children got to wander through a miniature community _ tiny houses made of painted plywood where volunteers passed out candy and stuffed animals, much of which had been donated by local businesses.

Jennifer Jones, 12, of Hudson smiled as her mother, Jan, put a pink stuffed elephant under the child's arm. Jennifer is a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy who depends on others to push her wheelchair from place to place.

The night of the party, though, it wasn't just a wheelchair. Jennifer's father had converted it into "Barbie's Hot Rod," a hot pink speedster with the famous doll herself sitting on the hood. Jennifer, dressed as a fairy-tale princess, held her new toy as her mother took her around the neighborhood.

"She loves it," Mrs. Jones said. "We come here every year. . . . This is a big thing for her." She also praised the event, saying that it is her daughter's only real chance to join in the Halloween fun.

"This is it," she said.

More than a dozen severely disabled young people from the Angelus House also attended the event. Some of them changed their wheelchairs into Halloween costumes, like a bright yellow school bus or Batman's Batmobile.

The party took on all the atmosphere of an indoor festival. Clowns entertained by making balloon animals or painting faces. Magicians startled and amazed by pulling soft foam balls from children's ears. There even was a small midway where children could play games to win prizes.

"It's fun," said 5-year-old Jared Wilson, who had just gotten a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle painted on one side of his face and a thunder cloud on the other. "I wanted to be a clown," he said, explaining the decorations. "But I'm a Power Ranger instead."