WOODBURY - When Natalie Rankins took her son, Brandon Evans, and his friends out for dinner or a movie, she noticed something that troubled her.
Evans, 28, has special needs. Rankins began to realize her son's friends, who also had special needs, often couldn't afford to go out, so she would pay for their meals or admission when she could. But before long, her generosity became unsustainable, and she began to search for a solution.
"So I was thinking, hm, what can we do to get everyone out, to be able to do something fun?" Rankins said.
This led Rankins to start the nonprofit Special Adventures with the help of several family members and friends. The organization currently hosts a monthly gathering for adults with special needs and is planning a prom for people 18 years and older who have special needs on Saturday, June 22, at East Ridge High School. Organizers are expecting 700-1,000 people at the event.
Doors will open at 5 p.m., when volunteers begin doing hair, makeup and shoe shining free of charge. The event will include food and drinks, music, a photo booth, and a professional photographer. Attendees are not required to dress up but are encouraged to if they would like, Rankins said.
A reason to celebrate
Many adults with special needs rely on government assistance and have a limited amount of money to spend on activities that are just for fun. For this reason, all events put on by Special Adventures are free of charge.
"We wanted to create ... at least one fun thing for them to look forward to each month, that is going to be of no cost to them, for them to connect with a community and their friends in a social setting," Rankins said.
The nonprofit operates entirely on donations, which include monetary contributions from individuals and food or goods from businesses. Everyone who works for the organization is an unpaid volunteer, according to Rankins.
Special Adventures has been holding monthly dinner dances since May 2018, often at Gethsemane Lutheran Church in St. Paul. The events average about 150 people, including adults with special needs, their caregivers and family members. Many of the same people come every month, Rankins said, whether they live in a group home, adult foster care or with family.
"We feel like it'll improve their quality of life," she said. "It really helps them with their social skills, being able to get out and socialize."
The church has also become home to a service for people with special needs from noon to 1 p.m. every Sunday. Rankins said attendance has increased from six people in the beginning to about 40 attendees every week.
Jerry Belgea, Rankins' aunt, serves as the secretary for Special Adventures. Like most of the organization's volunteers, Belgea is retired. Her "everyday thing" is spending time on the computer seeking out donations for the dinner dances and upcoming prom.
A donation that had a significant impact on the organization was a pair of light-up speakers. The setup has given Evans the chance to DJ at every event and provide an important element: music.
"Oh my gosh, the dance floor is full all the time," she said. "All the time. They just love to dance so much."
Belgea had never been involved in the special needs community before Special Adventures, but once she was, she wondered why she hadn't gotten involved earlier.
"There's not an event that I have gone to that I haven't almost cried, because they come up and they say thank you," Belgea said of the attendees. "They're so appreciative of everything you do."
If you go ...
What: "A Night To Remember" Special Needs Prom
When: 6-9 p.m. Saturday, June 22 (doors at 5 p.m.); register no later than June 15 at specialadventures.net
Where: East Ridge High School (enter through activities entrance)
More info: Contact hospitality coordinator Rose LeClaire at 651-767-2990 with any questions.