On a recent Friday evening in Stillwater, a dozen teenagers and young adults gathered around greasy pizza boxes, grabbed a few slices and settled in to watch a funny movie.
A few parents lingered at the back of the room before one teen turned and asked: “Mom, when are you going to leave?”
By the time the lights dimmed and the opening scenes flashed on the screen, most parents had quietly filed out. The teens stretched out and tuned into the film — just a group of friends with bellies full of pizza and a cool place to hang on a Friday night.
The normalcy of these nights still makes Susan Kane smile, eight years after she founded the Valley Friendship Club with two other parents of children with disabilities. Now serving 160 active members, the nonprofit was formed in response to what many young people with disabilities experience: a social life that shrinks as they age.
“A typical kid would maybe go to Starbucks and study with peers after school,” Kane said. “That’s not an option for this population — our kids were ending up just going home or to a child-care situation.”
The Valley Friendship Club adds another option for those in the St. Croix Valley. Since moving to its own space on Memorial Avenue North, near Stillwater High School, members can take the school bus right to the club’s “Hub.” There, they join friends for foosball, karaoke, pool and board games in a safe, supervised space.
“What’s amazing is the ordinariness of it — it’s mostly just hangout time, but for our kids, that’s extraordinary,” said Tara King, the club’s co-founder. King has four children, one of whom has Down syndrome.
“My biggest fear when he was little was that his friends would outgrow him,” King said of her son, Gabe, now 12. That worry has faded as Gabe continues to expand his group through the club.
Abundance of outings
Outside of activities at the Hub, the nonprofit also facilitates about 75 events a year. Outings include fishing, hiking, snowshoeing and bowling. Members can also try yoga and martial arts, take photography or cooking classes.
Kane is quick to specify that the club is not a day program or a program designed to teach specific skills. Though events are often designed with a learning component, the aim is to foster friendship and social independence while connecting members to the community.
For 25-year-old Zak Goetz, the club offers new activities that he might not have otherwise tried.
“It’s just really cool,” he said. “I get to meet new friends and do things with my old friends.”
Zak’s mother, Amy Goetz, called the club “a blessing.”
“Our kids can become really isolated, and inclusion for them is so often an afterthought,” she said. “Here, we don’t have to fight for that inclusion. It’s amazing.”
The idea for Valley Friendship Club came to Kane after she dropped her son off with friends on a Friday night. That’s when her daughter, Hannah, who has developmental delays, started to cry, wondering why she never had a place to go on a Friday night.
“She was right — there was nothing to do for those with disabilities,” Kane said.
So Kane and King met with the founder of the Highland Friendship Club in St. Paul, a nonprofit that was founded in 2002 under a similar mission. The advice from its founder?
“Don’t overthink it and just do it,” Kane remembers hearing. “That’s what we did.”
That same year, the club received its nonprofit status and hosted its first event, which drew about 20 people through word of mouth.
After years of using other nonprofits’ spaces, Valley Friendship Club moved into its own facility in October 2017. Since then, it’s been open on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and for activities on Friday nights and weekends.
Both the Valley and the Highland Friendship clubs continually receive requests to expand their reach.
“The need is everywhere,” said Kane’s husband, Dennis Kane. “These parents are constantly looking for social opportunities that typical kids wouldn’t think twice about.”
Parents have fun, too
Hannah, now 23, attends many of the club’s events. She’s been dating her boyfriend, Chad — another member — for three years. For the recent movie night, the two sat together on the couch, fingers intertwined.
“They’ve build this wonderful relationship that I had worried might not be possible for him,” said Chad’s mother, Melissa Bracewell-Musson.
After living in Canada and California, Bracewell-Musson said the Friendship Club is a better fit for Chad than other groups she’d found. The club is a primary reason the family isn’t planning another move, she said.
“The variety of activities is huge,” she said, adding that most are low-cost or free. “Everything they do really promotes that important social and emotional growth.”
The rest of Bracewell-Musson’s family has benefited from the club, too. In meeting other members and seeing his brother socialize, her youngest son was better able to understand Chad.
For her, being able to drop Chad off at a fun, safe and accepting place has offered “immense freedom and peace of mind.”
It’s added to her social life, too. Some nights, the parents gather for dinner while their children are at the Hub.
“It gives us a place where we understand and support each other,” Bracewell-Musson said.
Since moving to its new location, the Valley Friendship club has more than doubled its programming. Still, Kane hopes to someday offer the club each weekday and to continue to expand its outreach for elementary and middle-school children. Typically, she said, relationships with peers start to fall off by the time a child with disabilities reaches fourth or fifth grade.
“That’s when that gap really widens, so we want to address that,” Kane said.
As the club continues to grow, King thinks back to those initial conversations eight years ago.
“I knew that with Susan’s tenacity, something big would happen,” she said, pausing as a group of teens burst through the door of the Hub and beelined toward the pizza.
“But I never dreamed it would be this big.”