Twenty-ONEderful unites families with children who have special needs

Parents lift a parachute over the group of children as they dance during the Twenty-ONEderful Dance party held at the Canyon Country Jo Anne Darcy Library in Canyon Country on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2017. Dan Watson/The Signal
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A family connection group in the Santa Clarita Valley is working to share the message that “different is beautiful” by hosting monthly events for families with children who have Down syndrome.

Started by and for parents of children with Down syndrome, or Trisomy 21, Twenty-ONEderful brings together children of all ages for meetups, movie screenings, dance parties and more.

“There’s comfort in that in knowing there was a community locally that I could connect with that would understand what I was going to and that we could share advice,” said Kyla Kelly, one of the lead parent facilitators with Twenty-ONEderful who joined the group when her son Cash was seven months old.  “If I didn’t have it I would feel so alone.”

Currently in its fifth year, the group connects families who understand each other’s journey as they navigate the struggles and triumphs of parenthood.

Kyla Kelly’s son Cash sits in a bathtub at 11 months old. Courtesy of Kyla Kelly

History of Twenty-ONEderful

In December 2012, Kimberly Molenda, a mother of four, reached out to the Family Focus Resource Center after finding out that her son Max had Down syndrome when he was four or five months old.

“My feeling of fear upon finding out he had Trisomy 21 was from lack of knowledge and being unfamiliar and not knowing anything about it,” said Molenda, whose son is now 5 years old.  “For me, I felt like the more I could learn about it and the more I could connect with other families would be helpful.”

With help and support from the Family Focus Resource Center, Molenda gathered community members and held the first Twenty-ONEderful meeting Jan. 4, 2013.

“I was curious to see if anyone else had kids with Trisomy 21 and to my surprise there were quite a few families in Santa Clarita that did come to the group,” Molenda said.

In the beginning, the group was more of an informational meeting, with Spanish translators and babysitters, but later on the meetings transformed into a social family connection group.

“Some of the other moms and I got together and talked about how my idea was to have family get together once a month where we do something that is ideally free in Santa Clarita… and do something different every month,” Molenda said.

As the founder and leader of Twenty-ONEderful, Molenda would plan events, reach out to families and touch base with group members to develop regular attendance at and a connection to the group.

“We have a chance to get together and be like a community and share thoughts and stories and information,” Molenda said.  “That’s been really great and indispensable.”

Community Outreach Events

About a year ago, Molenda turned over the reins of Twenty-ONEderful to co-lead parent facilitators, Kelly and Francesca Phillipi, who organize and plan the group’s events up to six months in advance.

“We try to make it slightly different each month,” said Kelly, whose son Cash is now 2 years old.

Throughout the years the group has watched sensory-friendly films at the movie theater, held a dance class at the Jo Anne Darcy Library, spent time together in a city park, met for a potluck meal, among other activities.

Emma Brahe, 4, dances with a scarf to the song “Wiggle It” during the Twenty-ONEderful Dance party held at the Canyon Country Jo Anne Darcy Library in Canyon Country on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2017. Dan Watson/The Signal

During the events, families also discuss topics like the best places to buy glasses, where to go to the doctor and dentists, and what therapists are helpful.

“We’ve had maybe a handful of families that have stayed consistent over the past five years, but we’ve been having a group meet monthly,” Molenda said.

In the future, Phillipi hopes to add more educational programs and resources to the group and Molenda and Kelly hope to include children with Down syndrome of all ages, including adults, in the group’s activities.

“My vision is that we keep it strong consistently so they [children who have Down syndrome] have this community of friends that are like them so they can talk with each other and understand each other,” Molenda said.

Impact in SCV

For parents with children who have Down syndrome, Twenty-ONEderful is a safe place where children can be themselves and where parents can support each other.

“It gave me comfort,” Kelly said.  “I can call these people and say, ‘my son is going through this and how did you handle this?'”

For Phillipi, who joined the group two years ago after moving to Santa Clarita, it is refreshing to attend events with people who are positive and with moms who “get it.”

“Being able to really fellowship and connect with people who get it is comforting and refreshing and enjoyable,” said Phillipi, whose son Preston is almost 3 years old.

The group also provides a place for families to connect over their shared life experiences, offer advice to one another and even laugh and cry together.

“Anyone who has a child with Trisomy 21 you find out that there’s nothing wrong with it, that it’s pure joy and there are challenges like there are with any child,” Molenda said.

Kyla Kelly’s son Cash sits in a Christmas box at 1 and half years old. Courtesy of Kyla Kelly

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