William LeVoy is 48 and, this year, he wanted to be a monster for Halloween.
"Let me show you," he said, his cape flowing in the breeze, and pulled his scary mask over his face. "I picked it out in the store."
Then he took it off again, as it was stuffy and hot, and smiled wide, an infectious smile, his cheeks ruddy from the sun.
It was Thursday afternoon and LeVoy and his mother waited in line outside the Aripeka Elks Lodge 2520 for their annual Halloween party for children and adults with special needs. LeVoy lives with his mother in Hudson and found out about the party through his adult day care program. This was his first time.
"I'm excited," he said.
Officially, the doors open at 5 p.m., but every year they open earlier as kids, adults and their families and caretakers start lining up around 4. Near LeVoy was Star Lathrop, a 29-year-old who stood in line with her mother, Kay Lathrop. This year, Star chose to be an emergency room nurse, with a green cap, scrubs and a stethoscope around her neck, because she was in the hospital recently for problems with her liver. The nurses and doctors were very nice to her, she said.
"I'm fine now," she whispered, shyly. Her mom said she was quiet because she was focused on the doors opening to the party.
"It's just overwhelming what they do for these kids," Kay Lathrop said of the Elks volunteers who have hosted this event for more than 20 years - all through donations and hard work.
As the doors open and the kids and adults get inside, they first trick-or-treat through a fake neighborhood, which is much like a theater set, of homes with volunteers passing out candy. Then they get food - pizza, hot dogs, soda - and can play games and get their faces painted. Everyone gets a raffle ticket and listens for their name to be called to get a prize. But the secret is that everyone gets one. No one is excluded.
Bob Stoner, an Elks member and volunteer, said getting donations this year for the 500 party-goers was tough because of the economy. "We had to beg," he said. "But we got them, though."
Geri Wojcik has volunteered here for 12 years. This year she handed out candy bars.
"I used to do clowning, out on the floor," she said. "But I cried too much."
The emotions are high here. Volunteers get teary-eyed looking at the kids with severe needs. Some can't move and can't talk and use feeding tubes - but they still get excited about dressing up and give their candy to others who can eat. But no one wants pity.
Everyone here can look around and find fellowship and reasons to be thankful - regardless of how bad a situation might be, there is always someone undergoing something that can be viewed as worse.
"The kids can relax and be themselves," said Heather Schaeffer, 32, who was there with her husband and four children.
Her 11-year-old son, Sly Marchesano, is slightly autistic.
"Here, he doesn't have to worry about being made fun of," said Jack Schaeffer, Sly's stepfather.
Mary Caceres was there with her husband and three grandchildren. They are new to the world of special needs.
"You feel so lost," said Mary Caceres, who held her 31/2 year old granddaughter, Maryn Caceres, on her lap. Maryn was born with cerebral palsy and some other afflictions, while her twin, Caitlyn, is fine.
Caitlyn ran around playing games with her older sister, Breana, 6. Maryn can't talk or move well, but she's so calm, watching and studying the world. Caceres calls her a Zen Baby and said her friends ask to hold her, because it makes them feel peaceful.
At the party, Caceres made new friends who understand.
"It makes you realize that you're not alone," she said, and hugged Maryn tight.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4609.