Tom Earle loves to dance. Five years ago, he and his friend, Emily Conlon, started taking hip-hop dance classes at the Dance Academy of Windham and he was hooked.
The 24-year-old Earle soon began asking his mother to find places where he could go for a night of social dancing to practice his new moves.
But from what Patricia Earle could see, there was nowhere in the area that her son, who has Down syndrome, and other people with special needs and disabilities could go to dance comfortably and be themselves without feeling self-conscious or inhibited.
Patricia Earle approached her partner, Jarlene LeBlanc, who is also her son's caretaker, with an idea for organizing their own dances and social events for people with special needs.
That conversation gave rise to Bridging The Horizon.
Built on the realization of how difficult it is for people with disabilities to find fun, loving places to go where they can enjoy a positive experience, the Salem, N.H., nonprofit aims to provide just that experience
Bridging the Horizon held its first dance for people of all ages in March 2015. It has gone on to host eight more events since then in locations ranging from Salem to Andover, including a Valentine's-themed soiree this past weekend at Comfort Home Care in Methuen.
In describing the events, Earle said, "It's a place they can go and the parents can relax and not be worried about them getting picked on or ..."
"Ridiculed," LeBlanc interjected. "It's a safe place for them."
"We're all in the same boat ...," Earle continued. "There's a girl who has to wear boxing gloves and nobody picks on her (here). They're all in the same situation."
LeBlanc and Earle volunteer their time to the organization, with Earle even digging into her own pockets to cover the cost of running the events early on. LeBlanc just calls it a labor of love.
"They just have so much fun," LeBlanc said of those who attend. "The joy on their faces just makes it all worth it."
Deb Conlon, whose adult, disabled daughter has been friends with Tom Earle since the first grade, said she, too, had trouble finding social opportunities for Emily to go where she could be herself. Deb Conlon said while there have been dances in the area that have been open to people with disabilities, they typically draw a mixed crowd of disabled and non-disabled people and have never quite been what she and her daughter were looking for.
Bridging the Horizon has succeeded in filling that void, said Deb Conlon, who watched Earle and LeBlanc build the group from the ground up.
"It's been amazing," said Deb Conlon, who with her daughter has attended every event the group has held to date.
Conlon said it's important for her daughter Emily and other families in similar situations to have places to go without fear of judgment, where they can just belong.
She said that's especially crucial as young people with disabilities move beyond the traditional school systems where non-disabled children befriend those with disabilities.
Eventually, those without disabilities get their driver's licenses, start dating, secure jobs and become independent in ways that disabled students cannot, she said, and the gap widens.
But at Bridging the Horizon events, that gap is nonexistent — for both the disabled and their caretakers, Deb Conlon said.
"For my daughter, (her favorite part) is the dancing and the music, She does a lot of dancing and just socializing with her friends; she just loves to be with her friends," she said.
The same holds true for Deb Conlon. "I actually enjoy the socializing with the other parents, because it's an opportunity for us to have a sounding board," she added.
Interest for the Bridging the Horizon events — which have included a Thanksgiving Dance last November and a New Year's celebration in January complete with a sit-down dinner and DJ at Castleton in Windham— has been steadily increasing by word of mouth. Where the March 2015 kickoff dance drew about 50 guests, last weekend's Valentine's Soiree attracted a crowd of three times that with 160 in attendance.
Thanks to the growing popularity, together with fundraising drives and local donations, the initiative has been able to thrive, Earle and Conlon said.
Earle is no longer having to help finance the events, which charge a minimal admission fee. Tickets for the Valentine's Soiree, for example, were $10, and included chicken, steak and mashed potatoes provided by Outback Steakhouse plus some sweet treats.
Next month, the group marks its one-year birthday with a party planned for the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Salem, N.H.
"To see the (events) grow and see how much they've been able to accomplish is really something," Conlon said.
ON THE HORIZON
Bridging the Horizon's next event will be a one-year birthday party on Saturday, March 19, from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Salem, N.H., 3 Geremonty Drive.
For more information on the event or the nonprofit group itself, visit bridgingthehorizon.org or contact Trish Earle at 603-401-5907 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or Jarlene LeBlanc at 603-670-8763 or email@example.com.