Mardi Gras Ball benefits autism program | SteamboatToday.com

Mardi Gras Ball benefits autism program

Kari Dequine Harden/For the Steamboat Today

Live performers, prize drawings, a new Cajun menu and dancing to the Johnny O Band will highlight Saturday night's sixth annual Mardi Gras Ball. Proceeds from the fundraising event benefit the Yampa Valley Autism Program.

— No mother can ever be prepared for this, said Babette Dickson, sipping a margarita with her friend Denise Kreger.

Dickson and Kreger are part of a group of about six moms who have been gathering together for the past 12 years. There are smiles and laughter, a lot of memories, but also a shared pain, shared suffering.

Kreger has been having a particularly rough stretch, after her 14-year-old son had one of his worst meltdowns to date and violently attacked Kreger, her daughter and her husband.

"No one can prepare you for that," Dickson said again.

Their bond began through their children, specifically their sons who have all been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  

Over the years, the support group grew into a foundation before evolving into the Yampa Valley Autism Program (YVAP), with an aim to provide support and resources to other families in the community.

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Saturday marks the program's signature fundraising event – the sixth annual Mardi Gras Ball.

At 6 p.m. the dining hall at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus will transform into a New Orleans masquerade – complete with a live funk and blues band and a Cajun menu.

Masks and costumes are enthusiastically encouraged, but not required – and masks to borrow will be available at the door. Carnival revelry will abound, with Hurricanes to sip and entertainment including belly dancers, jugglers and magic.

In addition to door prizes, a wide range of choice items will be available for bid in the live and silent auctions. They include a six-day vacation to a beachside bungalow in La Paz, Mexico for up to eight people, a private catered dinner for 12, a Boca Grande getaway, a private airplane tour of Yampa Valley, season ski passes and a photograph of the "Miracle on Ice" 1980 U.S. Hockey team, signed by the coach and entire team.

Tickets are $60 for singles (includes two drink tickets) and $110 for couples (includes four drink tickets). Tickets are an additional $10 at the door.

Between the hoop dancers and the jambalaya, spend 15 minutes talking with the courageous parents of the kids in this community with autism – about the daily challenges, the daily joys and the breakthroughs –and it doesn't take long to see it's all for a very good cause.

One of the soiree's belly dancers, Heidi Meshurel-Jolly, has a 6-year-old son named Ayden. Tall for his age, Ayden is energetic, thoughtful, funny, and he excels at math and reading. Ayden loves ice-skating, Angry Birds, Legos and movie soundtracks. He is affectionate and regularly requests to be tickled.

But the story of Ayden and his ASD diagnosis began with Meshurel-Jolly having no idea why, as a toddler, her son would have eight to 10 meltdowns everyday, or scream and cry so hard he couldn't breathe, or becoming aggressive because the car turned left instead of right, and all this happening with him seeming to have no vocabulary or ability to communicate what was wrong.

Through YVAP, Ayden has received social skills therapy, and a therapist Meshurel-Jolly calls "the light in his and our life that got him started on the right path."

For the group of moms, including new YVAP executive director Lisa Lorenz, who started meeting more than a decade ago in the group that eventually turned into YVAP, they quickly learned how different each of their boys were.

Each boy is on a different place on the relatively vast spectrum, with different challenges and abilities. Acknowledging those differences within ASD is vital to increasing public awareness, Kreger said, without which can spread common misconceptions.

Lorenz's son is like Ayden, more on the Aspberger's end, and considered high-functioning. She describes Sawyer as a "quirky guy." He is 20, is obsessed with hockey and on a path to working in television production and living independently.

Dickson's son James, now 17, is in the middle of the spectrum – diagnosed as moderate. Dickson describes her son as "a character" and very social, but still in an "infancy stage" in terms of developing typical social skills.

Fourteen-year-old Jack – "my Jack," as Kreger calls him, was diagnosed at 18 months with severe autism and is non-verbal.

"The aging of autism is scary," Kreger said. “We know that we will not live forever but what will become of my baby Jack?"

The other side of Jack’s aggression and anger is a boy with a sweet smile who loves more than anything to dance.

Kreger's dream for Jack, and her dream for the YVAP, is to sponsor a local housing project for adults with autism. "There is going to be a huge need for housing these children, who will all need assisted living after school.”

Despite the differences, together the mothers have been able to share their experiences, their triumphant days and their darkest days – as it's most often a process of trial and error, and a constant quest to find out what works best to keep their uniquely-wired children happy, stable, and safe.

While the Yampa Valley Autism Program has grown over the years, in large part thanks to a very supportive community, Lorenz says the needs remain great, and Saturday’s fundraiser ball plays a big part in the program’s capacity to offer families therapy and other programs.

For tickets and more information, go to http://www.yampavalleyautism.org. Tickets can also be purchased at All That Jazz or at the door.

If you go

What: Mardi Gras Ball fundraiser for the Yampa Valley Autism Program

When: 6 to 11:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Dining atrium at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine campus

Cost: $60 per person, $110 per couple