Dena Borrow would always take her daughter, Alexandra, to concerts at Central Park. Alexandra loved to dance and really enjoyed listening to the live music, but events like these could be challenging for her.
Dena said they would have to get there early for parking, which meant waiting in the heat on a hot day for the music to start, and there were normally large crowds. These can be challenging or overwhelming things for anyone, but they’re especially so for someone with special needs.
Sometime in 2017, Dena came up with an idea: Why not have a concert specifically tailored for people with special needs?
“Over the years I just thought myself, ‘Why don’t we have one for our differently abled community?’ They would love it [because] they love music and they love to dance,” said Dena.
So, Dena pitched her idea to the city of Santa Clarita. They loved it.
“She had this great dream and got a collective group of people that got behind her and she reached out to the city and together we helped to plan this event,” said Kyle Lopez, arts and events supervisor for the city of Santa Clarita. “[It’s] really, you know, kind of open to all. We’ve really tailored the event to be accommodating to those with sensory issues… they may not be able to come to a regular event where the volume is super loud, or [they] just kind of need some additional help.”
Five years since Dena originally pitched her idea to the city, and after the event was postponed during the pandemic, her idea finally came to be last weekend at the Free to be Me festival at the Canyon Country Community Center.
People with special needs were free to be themselves and could dance, sing, stim, or take time to themselves in a quiet and designated “chill zone” without any judgment. This event was for them.
It was more than just a concert, though. Since it is sometimes difficult for people with special needs to stay still for long periods of time, attendees could participate in a variety of activities such as sports games, sensory activities, petting therapy dogs, drum circles, and of course music and dancing.
Chandra Neal-Chutte, who was in attendance with her son Ryan, said she’s very thankful there were athletic activities for her son at the event and that the city does a great job of providing resources once people with special needs leave public schools.
“I love that just because he’s very athletic and high school programs don’t really have athletic programs for special needs kids… I’m thankful for programs that, you know, provide an outlet for him to be athletic and safe and inclusive,” said Neal-Chutte. “I think Santa Clarita is great with their inclusion of special needs and the programs that are involved. There’s just more publicity about it and you know, people are aware of it and it gets more support.”
Lopez said an event that represents this community was an essential goal and that bringing people from all demographics in Santa Clarita was also a benchmark the city set out to achieve.
“There’s tons of people that live in Santa Clarita and I think not everybody is able to come to events and we want to be able to offer events that can meet all different demographics,” said Lopez. “This isn’t something we’ve offered before. We do want to meet all the demographics that are here in Santa Clarita, and I think by offering this event, we’re able to achieve that by bringing folks into something that they may not otherwise be able to attend.”
Dance lessons were given at the beginning of the event by Riley Weinstein, who was paralyzed at an early age and is now a dance instructor for people with and without special needs. Weinstein also gave an inspirational speech at the event.
Speeches were also given by Bill Smitrovich from the show “Life Goes On,” which was the first television drama to center around a character with special needs, and by Mayor Laurene Weste. Music was provided by the Los Angeles-based band, The Replicas.
Dena said it was moving to see other parents and family members of people like her daughter enjoying what initially just started as an idea in her head.
“It turned out amazing to watch these children. It was almost, it was overwhelming, really. [It] just came together so beautifully,” said Dena. “And watching these kids dance, I mean, they’re just so excited and they were just having a great time. It felt really, really good that… the community and the city, we gave them something that they could enjoy and I’m just really overwhelmed by how it all turned out and how everyone enjoyed it.”
Dena said Alexandra loved the event, too.
“We had face painting and a lot of different other activities, and she had a great time. She went to all the booths and just had a great time. I mean, it was just wonderful for her,” said Dana.
In addition to all the activities Alexandra did, she also, of course, danced.