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A special Christmas

About a year ago, Steve and Sherry Hoffmire were lying in bed talking about what they could do to help their daughter. She’s a special needs child who was having trouble making friends at school.

“We saw her sitting on the edge of the playground, watching the other kids play,” Sherry said.

The Hoffmires came up with a unique idea that has not only helped their daughter, but dozens of other special-needs kids in the Oak Harbor community and beyond. They started a group, Special Times 4 Special Friends, that helps these special kids build friendships. The idea is simple: They provide fun activities where both kids and their families can develop relationships with others.

Saturday, the group’s Skating With Santa event at the Roller Barn was a giant success. Santa Claus, AKA Ed Kuhlow, handed out nearly 100 presents to the roller-skate-clad kids who hopped up onto his lap. The board games, dolls and other toys were donated by local churches and individuals.

The roller rink was filled with the noise and heat of kids roller skating and parents chasing after them. There were plenty of pratfalls, but the energetic kids just got up and kept skating.

It was the first of the Special Times events for Oak Harbor resident Deann Leckbee and her three children. She was thrilled to watch her kids have fun out on the roller rink.

“They’re all out there and enjoying themselves,” she said. “I don’t think any of them want to go home. It’s really nice what they are doing for the kids.”

Doddie Maddin brought her two grandchildren, 22-month-old Jacob and 2-year-old Delaney, to the Roller Barn. Instead of skating, the smiley kids rode around the rink on a stroller that grandma pushed. “We’re having fun,” Maddin said.

While fun is key, Steve Hoffmire said he and his wife wanted to pick activities that might be new for some of the special-needs kids. Last month they went swimming at the pool. Before that was bowling, gymnastics, kite flying, a picnic in Anacortes and even a day at a horse ranch. “We want to expose the kids to activities that excite them,” he said.

Steve explained that the informal group has four basic goals. The first goal is simply to create a fun atmosphere where the kids, preschool through the first grade, can make friends. “That’s the hardest thing for these kids, building friendships,” he said. “A lot of them end up pretty lonely.”

The second goal is to involve all the child’s family members in the fun activities, so that they can meet others is similar situations. He said parents, especially young or single parents, with a special needs child can feel overwhelmed and isolated. “Now they have a network of friends built up,” he said, “where they are just kind of leaning on each other.”

The third and fourth goals are to reach out to educators and other community members, including neighborhood kids, to involve them in the lives of special needs kids.

Steve explained that they have no strict definition for what special needs means, but they just leave it to the parents to decide. He said there are a wide variety of kids with a wide range of abilities who attend the events. There are children with autism, Downs syndrome, sensory disabilities and ADHD.

While the idea for the group started out modestly, Sherry said she’s thrilled that it’s expanded to include families from all over the island, as well as Anacortes and Mount Vernon. It’s an informal group, so there’s no membership, but she said they’re able to make the events happen with a lot of support from parents.

And friendships are being made.

“We’re at the point now,” Steve said, “where the kids are really excited to see each other.”

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