Royal Prom ready to shine

September in Northern Kentucky means Oktoberfest celebrations, pumpkin festivals and football. Now a new tradition may be making its mark on the month: The Royal Prom.

The dining, dancing, partying extravaganza for people with disabilities aged 14 and older gets under way Friday at Crossroads church in Florence. In its third year, the Royal Prom seems to have become part of Northern Kentucky, said Brian Kremer, director of Northern Kentucky Capernaum, which organizes the event with local churches, businesses and organizations.

“It seems like everywhere I go people are talking about how much they love the prom or asking about next year’s prom,” Kremer said. “It’s amazing that this has taken root and is something people look forward to each year.”

Kremer likes what this says about Northern Kentucky. “We are serious about loving our friends [with disabilities] in this community,” he said.

That love will be on full display when 350 guests – a full house – converge on the spacious venue at Crossroads to celebrate together thanks to the work of nearly 700 volunteers. Kremer said the guests and volunteers “come from every corner of Northern Kentucky.”

Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton greets guests at last year’s Royal Prom.

Andy Dalton returns

Much of the prom will be similar to years past, Kremer said, noting that many prom guests like consistency.

Kremer said organizers are “delighted and thrilled” to have Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton return for the second year to announce each guest for a walk down the red carpet. The red carpet starts the night on a high note as volunteers line up to cheer guests on their way into the prom.

Volunteer escorts will welcome guests and accompany them throughout the prom to help ensure everyone has a good time and stays safe. Guests will dine on meals provided by Chick-fil-A in Florence and Newport and dessert from Gigi’s Cupcakes in Florence. They’ll receive flowers – boutonnieres or wrist corsages – and will have the opportunity to hit the dance floor, play games and get their photo taken.

New this year

Some new features this year include a photo booth for more informal, fun photos and jugglers to entertain the crowd.

Also new this year will be the registration and pick-up processes. Guests will register at a tent in the parking lot before walking the red carpet. Registered guests should have received in the mail a wristband they are to wear at prom. The bands note dietary restrictions, allergies and other health information for their escorts to be aware of.

At registration, each guest’s driver will also receive a wristband with the guest’s name on it. The driver must present the wristband at pick-up to make sure everyone goes home with the right person. If drivers are sharing drop-off and pick-up duties, Kremer said, they can use cell phones to send photos of the wristbands to each other and those will be honored at pick-up.

Traffic officers will be new this year, as well, to make getting in and out of Crossroads easier.

Safety has always been a focus. A team of doctors, emergency medical technicians and nurses will wear scrubs so that they can be easily identified in case of a medical emergency. Also, qualified medical personnel will be available if anyone needs help in the restroom.

Volunteers working security will wear referee jerseys for easy identification. Many workers will have radios so that they can communicate easily about any needs or issues, Kremer said.

The Chick-fil-A Cow dances at last year’s Royal Prom. According to Chick-fil-A social media posts, Cow looks forward to dancing again this year.

Eric Northrup is back too

Each prom features an uplifting faith message, and this year’s speaker will be Eric Northrup. Northrup is a rock star in this crowd. He started Northern Kentucky Capernaum in 2009 and was instrumental in starting the Royal Prom in 2014. He moved to Cincinnati last year to establish Capernaum there.

Capernaum is a nondenominational Christian ministry that reaches out to teens with disabilities to foster relationships and share the message of God’s love. It is a branch of Young Life, a national ministry in many area high schools. Capernaum organizes events throughout the year, offering Bible studies, monthly “club nights,” summer camps, and other outings.

Joining Capernaum in the prom effort are area churches, businesses and organizations. You can visit the Royal Prom’s website, where, if you scroll down on the home page, you can find a list of prom sponsors. A committee of ten to 15 people work throughout the year, devoting an incredible amount of time, energy, thought and sacrifice, Kremer said. “I’m so thankful for everybody on that committee,” he said. “To me they are heroes.”

Changing the culture

Kremer, as Northrup did before him, talks about changing the culture. So often, people with disabilities are isolated and not given the same opportunities as others, Kremer said. He talks about a society where people with disabilities are seen for the people they are on the inside. He talks about a society where people with disabilities are accepted and loved.

It’s only one night. … We want this to be just what our friends experience every day.

The Royal Prom creates such a night, but, Kremer said, “It’s only one night. … We want this to be just what our friends experience every day.”

While seeing the joy of the prom-goers is richly rewarding, some of the best stories, Kremer said, come from people working at the prom. “It really leaves its mark on our volunteers,” he said. “I encourage people to bring tissues because I guarantee you at some point there will be tears in your eyes.”

Organizers hope that the prom is opening people’s eyes to see more clearly the lives of people living with disabilities. “We get to impact the community too and help change the culture,” Kremer said. “There’s so much more to this than just a prom.”

Photos provided.

NKY group helps moms along special needs road

My family and I once found ourselves on the road from Louisville to Lexington in the midst of a snow storm. Flakes fell fast and thick and covered the painted lines that marked lanes and edges of asphalt. Wipers brushed snow off the windshield, and we looked out onto a landscape with no clearly defined road. Except for one clue: travelers before us left tracks in the snow. As the snow deepened around us, we slowly and carefully followed those tracks, grateful for their help in finding our way.

I think about that long-ago trip today, when, on this special needs journey, I’ve been fortunate to meet others who have gone before us through a storm. They’ve helped us figure out how to get an IEP, find respite services, apply for Medicaid, administer the ketogenic diet, obtain guardianship. The list goes on and grows with each passing year, and I am filled with thanks for those who leave tracks for us to follow, who share their advice and experience, who help us find our way.

Valerie Whisnant understands what I’m talking about. When her son, Zack, received his autism diagnosis more than a dozen years ago, someone introduced her to Mothers of Special Children of NKY, a group that’s all about helping moms of children with special needs find their way. Still, she didn’t know what to expect at the first meeting she attended.

“You’re scared to death to be there,” she told me, recalling those early, questioning days of a diagnosis when life is filled with uncertainty. “You don’t have any clue what you’re doing. I mean, it’s all brand new.”

Not to worry. The meeting was good, and Whisnant clicked with other moms. “I’ve been a part of it ever since,” she said. “I gained a lot of friends. I was part of something again. Zack was part of something.”

Now Whisnant is one of four officers of Mothers of Special Children of NKY, serving as the correspondence secretary. We talked recently about the group and its mission.

Any mom, any diagnosis

Mothers of Special Children of NKY welcomes any mom, grandmother or female guardian of a child with any diagnosis, Whisnant said. The group offers emotional support, especially to those just learning of their child’s diagnosis. Those can be difficult days when families may feel alone in their struggles, but MSC lets them know that others have been through similar challenges and understand what they’re facing.

The group offers practical support too, she said, as moms share experiences regarding resources and programs to help their children. The moms in the group have a wide range of experience – from those with young children learning about school services and applying for Medicaid to those with older children who are dealing with guardianship applications and transitioning to adulthood, Whisnant said. To provide targeted help, she said, the group connects moms whose children have similar diagnoses.

“There are a thousand journeys going on in one group,” Whisnant said of the situations members face. “There’s no road map, there’s no manual. It’s just us … it’s everybody helping each other with information.”

So it seems these moms do more than leave tracks in the snow for others to follow. They gather behind fellow travelers and help push them through the storm.

Traveling companions

MSC offers a few ways to join in on the journey:

  • Its webpage is The page introduces visitors to the group and its officers and includes contact information.
  • A Yahoo group enables moms to connect with each other online. Here also the group makes announcements and keeps members informed about community events for people with special needs. To join, go to, search for MothersofSpecialChildren and click on it. You will need a Yahoo email account.
  • A Facebook page, Mothers of Special Children of NKy, allows members of the closed group to ask questions and share information.
  • Members meet the second Thursday of each month for support dinners at Northern Kentucky restaurants. Locations are announced on the group’s Facebook page.

Whisnant said the group’s official membership on its database hovers around 50 as new people come and older ones go. The database tracks member residences, contact information and diagnoses so the group can connect new moms with members in similar situations to answer questions or share concerns.

The group’s Facebook page, though, has a lot more members, Whisnant said. Begun in 2013, the page had 129 members at last check. The dinners are smaller gatherings, with attendance ranging from three to more than a dozen. The group, which has existed for decades, used to have a formal meeting structure but found that the dinners attracted more members, Whisnant said.

“You can come and just listen,” she said. “Some want that. Others want to engage right away and want to share their experiences.”

Colleen Bracke began attending MSC meetings when her son Ryan was four weeks old. He’s now 29 and has Down Syndrome. Another son, Sammy, is 27, has spina bifida and is on the autism spectrum.

You can come and just listen. Some want that. Others want to engage right away and want to share their experiences.

“It was a huge life-saver for me,” said Bracke, noting that she’s not the type of person who asks for help. The support and information she received, along with the friendships she made, helped her cope with her family’s challenges, she said. “I know I cried on a lot of shoulders.”

Bracke also helped others. The group used to have a phone line, and for years it came into her house, she said. While she’s not as involved now that her sons are older, MSC’s impact has been long-lasting. “Some of the women I am closest to come from that group,” she said.

Over the years Whisnant has noticed how members cycle in and out of the group according to need. Also, as members gain experience, knowledge and a support system, their role in the group changes, she said. “You go from getting information to giving information.”

MSC is all about making a difference in lives – first your child’s, then other families’, Whisnant said. “If we can help any parent in any way, that’s what we’re there for.”

Showing the way. Like tracks before us in a snow storm.

As we forge ahead – whether our journeys take us through snow storms or the challenges of caring for someone with special needs – we leave hope along the road. Maybe without even realizing. As we follow the tracks left by those before us, we leave new marks. We keep the path fresh. We show others that the road does not end. The world does not end. We help others find their way.

New session for drama club open to teens of all abilities

Update: As of Oct. 6, this group will meet at the new time of 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.

I’ll never forget the first talent show my daughter performed in. She was maybe 11 years old when she stood on stage at epilepsy summer camp and recited a song she had learned in preschool, complete with finger movements, about a caterpillar who turned into a butterfly. To finish up her act, she turned a cartwheel.

The crowd went wild.

The crowd went wild for each act, and the performers beamed their pride and delight, as if they all were caterpillars turned to butterflies.

Ever since that talent show, I’ve been a fan of stage work for children with special needs. Now a program in Northern Kentucky brings the pride and delight of the performing arts to teens of all abilities. The program is called Dramakinetics – a word that names a method as well as an organization.

Dramakinetics, the method, uses movement, music and drama to encourage participants to express themselves creatively. While doing so, participants build confidence and friendships and learn new skills and information. Educator and religious sister Jannita Complo created Dramakinetics in 1974 for her doctoral dissertation at Wayne State University in Michigan. The program guides teachers in using the arts to teach academics and help students express themselves.

Dramakinetics, the organization, operates out of Cincinnati, offering performing arts activities to help children, teens and adults of all abilities reach their creative potential. The instructors work with schools and organizations and also offer instruction for home school students. Founder Pam Shooner, an educator and local performer, incorporated the non-profit organization in 2007.

In this video, Shooner talks about the program. “You can learn anything through Dramakinetics,” she says. “That’s why I believe in it.”

Earlier this year, Dramakinetics made its way across the Ohio River to offer a teen group called Creative Chaos. Instructors guided participants to create community productions infused with their particular interests. For instance, one session produced a play that included a queen, princesses, One Direction music and a villain. (Full disclosure: My daughter was in it, and it was brilliant!)

Dramakinetics hopes to grow in Northern Kentucky. Here’s a bit from the website: “This class will not only introduce the students to the various aspects of theater but also encourage them to have confidence in their creative ability and the courage to be themselves.  We are very excited to see what this group will put together!”

The next session starts Thursday. Here are the basics:

Ages: 13-20

Place: Stage One at First Church of Christ, 6080 Camp Ernst Rd., Burlington, KY 41005

Time: 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Duration: The ten-week session runs from Sept. 8 through Nov. 17.

Cost: $17 per class, $170 for the session. A $10-discount applies if the cost for the session is paid in full by the first class.

Register: Visit the Creative Chaos web page.

Contact: For more information, call Dramakinetics at 513-389-1721 or visit its website.


Special Needs NKy awarded grant

Skyward and Center LogosThis blogging journey just took an exciting new turn! Thanks to the people at Skyward and the Center for Great Neighborhoods, I’ve received a grant to upgrade Special Needs Northern Kentucky. To top it off, the grant includes money for a community celebration to launch the improved blog.

The grant is part of the myNKY Nano Grant Program, which awards up to $250 each to projects that propose creative ways to strengthen communities.

While Special Needs Northern Kentucky has had steady traffic from readers connected to its stories, the grant money will pay for changes aimed at making the blog easier to find on the internet. I hope the upgraded blog will create a larger community around the stories of people, events and organizations working to improve the lives of individuals with special needs in Northern Kentucky.

Here’s a bit from my grant application:

“The special needs community is far-reaching and diverse. … My [upgraded] blog would create a web of understanding, connections and support. It would strengthen community by bringing information from around the region into one place. It would open possibilities and provide hope to families who may often feel isolated. It would create understanding in the wider community by bringing these stories to light.”

Well, that’s a tall order. But there seems to be some mysterious drive urging me on. I can explain it about as well as I can explain how to get this blog to show up on search engines. Even while applying for this grant, I felt it. I read over information about the application for weeks, maybe months, and then, as if a kind stranger came along to push my stalled car on a lonely road, I began to move. I wrote my application on deadline day.

I got the full grant amount, and I plan to begin posting on the upgraded Special Needs Northern Kentucky in September. I am not the least bit tech savvy, so I am giving myself plenty of time to make the changes.

As for the community celebration, I’ll update you when the details are finalized. The grant program requires recipients to include in their project a free, publicly accessible element. The grant is also tied to a geographic location — in my case, the Florence area, since that is where I work — so I plan to organize a fall gathering at a local park for families and others with ties to the special needs community.

I plan to organize a fall gathering at a local park for families and others with ties to the special needs community.

In the meantime, I want to thank readers for reading my posts, sharing them and leaving comments. I want to thank those who have signed up to follow the blog. My blog site tracks the number of visitors, and I admit that I check those stats often. (It’s all anonymous, though I can see what country visitors are in.) Your visits are the fuel that keeps me going.

I want to thank the people who’ve talked with me for interviews. Thanks for sharing your stories and trusting me to tell them. It’s an honor. Thank you for inspiring me with your spirit, enthusiasm and hard work.

And I want to thank the people at Skyward and the Center for Great Neighborhoods for the work you do to strengthen Northern Kentucky. Thank you for awarding grants that encourage creativity and build a sense of community. Thanks for helping me travel this road.




American Girl Fashion Show calls for models

The Aubrey Rose Foundation is looking for models to grace the runway in its Grand Finale of the American Girl Fashion Show.

Beginning Saturday, girls ages 4 to 13 are invited to “model calls” in Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati. The fashion show, begun in 2004, brings a love of American Girl dolls and fashions together with a passion for helping families of ill children.

The foundation got word in the spring that American Girl has decided to discontinue the fashion show after 2016, so the Grand Finale – to be held Dec. 2-4 – will be the last show in the Cincinnati area.

American GirlThe show usually hits the runway in April, as it did earlier this year at Music Hall in Cincinnati. Around that time, organizers got word from American Girl’s corporate office about the end of the shows, which are held across the country to raise funds for charities.

Even though they were just finishing up April’s show, the people at the Aubrey Rose Foundation got busy and made plans for a final show to be held at Northern Kentucky University’s BB&T Arena.

Organizers hope to go out in style. The fashion show is the foundation’s biggest fundraiser, bringing in more than $100,000 annually, said Nancy Hollenkamp, Aubrey Rose co-founder and executive director. “The bigger and better the show is, the more help we can give,” she said.

Money raised from the show goes to help families with severely ill children pay their medical bills. Aubrey Rose has given families more than $1 million in the past 14 years, according to its website. Its mission includes the entire family with efforts to lift them up emotionally as well as financially.

The fashion shows are a joyful way to help. Girls model American Girl fashions and carry American Girl dolls. They walk the runway, making their turns with big smiles and maybe a few nerves while announcers describe their clothing, cameras snap and the audience applauds.


My daughter modeled several years ago. As I sat in the audience and enjoyed my American Girl tea party, which is included with a ticket to the show, the scope and beauty of the project astounded me. Organizers efficiently moved hundreds of people in and out of the venue for seven shows over a weekend. I remember lots of flowers around the raised runway. The commentary was a mini-history lesson as girls modeled the historical outfits. And the models seemed full of pride and joy, especially at the end when they were called together onto the stage for a rose ceremony.

The event, though, is more than a weekend. It’s a four-month experience.

First come model calls. Here girls and their families learn about the Aubrey Rose Foundation and what modeling for the show involves. The girls get registered and are measured so that organizers can determine what outfits they will wear.

Model calls are meant to be a fun experience, Hollenkamp said. Each girl gets a passport to get stamped as she moves from station to station, completing activities. There’s a runway to walk, a selfie station, a posing station.

The main criteria for prospective models is that they be able to wear girls’ sizes 4 to 16. Because the fashion show is a fundraiser, models donate $100 to participate. The money is due by Sept. 25, and Aubrey Rose provides support if girls want to raise the funds. For their donation, each model gets $100 worth of raffle tickets that are entered into a drawing for an American Girl product.

Grand Finale model calls start Saturday at Tri-County Mall in Cincinnati in the former space of Men’s Wearhouse, near the mall entrance closest to Sears, and continue there on Sept. 17. Model calls at Newport on the Levee are slated for Aug. 27 and Sept. 10 in the former IMAX Theater space.

To register for a model call, you can click here and hover over the Models tab on the top, then click Model Login from the drop-down list to create an account or access one already established if your model was in a previous show. Here you can select a time and place for a model call. Last I checked, available times ranged from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. depending on location.

Next on the list is Model Fits and Pics on Oct. 22 at Tri-County Mall. That’s when models try on their outfits and sit for a photo shoot with a professional photographer. Each model will receive a free 4×6-inch photo and the option to purchase a 10-pose photo CD for $50; the purchase includes all rights to use the photos however you like.

In October and November, models also will have the chance to learn from professionals how to rock the runway. Details for runway workshops are upcoming.

American Girl1Here’s the show schedule for the big weekend:

Friday, Dec. 2 — 6:30 p.m.

Saturday, Dec. 3 — 9:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.

Sunday, Dec. 4 — 10:30 a.m., 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.

Models are assigned to shows based on outfits, sizes and availability. Show assignments will be announced on Oct. 3.

It’s a lot to take in. As a model mom years ago, it seemed a bit daunting at first. But each model has her own web page to keep track of activities, which I found very helpful. On the Aubrey Rose website, you can find answers to the most frequently asked questions.

If you can’t find the answer you need there, I’ve found the people at Aubrey Rose to be responsive, reassuring and helpful. My daughter has special needs, and the volunteers were great about making her experience – and mine – comfortable and fun.

In her honor

Nancy and Jerry Hollenkamp started their foundation in honor of their daughter Aubrey Rose, who died Nov. 10, 2000, two days before her third birthday. In her short life, Aubrey spent months and months in the hospital and required five major surgeries, including heart and double-lung transplants, to treat rare and complex medical issues that began when she was born six weeks early with two holes in her heart.

AubreyAubrey was the third child, the baby of the family. So when the Hollenkamps talk about helping to lift a family out of the complexities that occur when a child has a serious illness, they speak from deep, personal experience. Always, they say, Aubrey had a smile and happy spirit. The Hollenkamps want to share that spirit through their foundation.

To find out more about the foundation, its programs and Aubrey’s story, click here.

Here’s a link to information about applying for financial aid from the foundation.

 The last hurrah

Over the years, the fashion show has brought many rewards in addition to the money it has raised.

“The kids love why we do the fashion show. They embrace that,” Hollenkamp said. “And that’s the neatest thing to see the kids knowing that they are helping us help the (other) kids. They get it so much.”

Hollenkamp also has enjoyed seeing the models grow throughout the years. Some of the girls modeled for as many as six years and then became commentators at the show. “That has been just wonderful,” she said.

The news about the show’s end wasn’t easy to take. “It crushed me. When American Girl called me, it crushed me,” Hollenkamp said.

The American Girl Fashion Show began nationally in 1992 as a way to help nonprofit organizations use the popular American Girl brand to raise money for children’s charities while providing a memorable experience for participants, wrote Susan Jevens, associate manager of public relations with American Girl, in response to questions I emailed. Aubrey Rose has been a “valued partner for 13 years and has made a significant impact in helping families care for children with life threatening illnesses,” she said.

About 62 shows are held annually, and the concept has proven successful over the past two decades, Jevens said. However, she said, many host organizations have begun to have trouble meeting fundraising goals. In response, American Girl is exploring a fashion show format to be held at its retail locations to support local children’s hospitals.

“American Girl is proud of its long history of giving back to communities and pleased to continue offering an updated version of the program to help children in need,” Jevens said.

Hollenkamp remains hopeful that her organization will find other means of supporting its mission. “When one door closes, another door opens,” she said. “I can’t wait for you to see what’s in store next.”

To the parents and models, Hollenkamp says thanks for the support all these years. “We’ll miss seeing them every year,” she said, “but we’re hoping that whatever we come up with next that they can embrace us again.”


For other ways to support the Aubrey Rose Foundation, visit its website at There you’ll find information about the following:
  • Fireworks Spectacular on Sept. 4 aboard the Belle of Cincinnati for the Western & Southern/WEBN Fireworks Presented by Cincinnati Bell.
  • Let’s Dance for the Heart of It! Gala on Nov. 11 at the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza.
  • Above and Beyond Doctor of the Year Award, which is seeking nominations until Sept. 16 for top doctors from Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio who specialize in treating children with an emphasis on heart, lungs or general pediatrics.
  • Writerly Sew, which embroiders shirts and apparel for businesses and organizations and gives all proceeds to ARF.



Videos help tell the story of day camp, The Royal Prom

As I’ve said before, the people at Northern Kentucky Capernaum know how to do fun. They also know how to do video. Justin Newman put together this fabulous and inspiring Day Camp video that gives viewers an idea of the activities and energy at the Newman Farm in Union last week.

This year’s camp — held July 25-29 — was the biggest in the event’s four years, said Brian Kremer, area director of Northern Kentucky Capernaum. More than 60 campers with disabilities middle-school age and older attended Monday through Thursday. Counting staff and volunteers, nearly 150 people came together each day to share faith and sing, dance and play.

Friday night’s banquet and talent show attracted 280 people, Kremer said. Campers and their families and friends ate burgers, hot dogs and sides at long tables set inside the airy barn. After dinner, campers took the stage for a talent show, entertaining the crowd with singing, dancing and jokes.

Yes, camp is over but the fun continues. The next big event for Capernaum is The Royal Prom, a spectacle of a night with dinner and dancing for people aged 14 and up with disabilities. It’s scheduled for September 23 at Crossroads church in Florence.

At The Royal Prom’s website, visitors can watch another great video — a gorgeous account of last year’s prom. If you need something to remind you of the goodness and joy in this world, this video might be just the thing. (I usually need a tissue for this one.) Also on the site, visitors can sign up to attend the prom or to volunteer for it.

Capernaum is a nondenominational Christian ministry that serves teens and young adults with disabilities. I wrote a previous post about the group’s plans for day camp. I plan to write more about The Royal Prom in the coming weeks. In the meantime, if you’re interested in The Royal Prom, check out the website and video. You might want to have a box of tissues handy.

Photo provided by Northern Kentucky Capernaum


At New Perceptions doors open to the arts

When you walk through the doorway of Room 227 at New Perceptions in Edgewood, you step into a world of possibilities.

Paintings, sketches, sculptures and other works of art line shelves, sit on tables and are propped along walls. Canvases, clay, wire and art supplies of every kind fill cabinets, drawers and other shelves. It’s a colorful, inspiring room, busy but not cluttered.

This is the home of Art Abilities – where imagination reigns and creative magic happens.

On a recent Tuesday morning, Erick Winburn dipped a brush into pale blue and green paints. He leaned over a sculpture and dabbed the paint onto clay that he and his buddy and fellow artist Billy Bach had pinched and placed to represent water. Driftwood and rocks Winburn had collected sat amid the clay water. Perched on the driftwood was a fisherman he had fashioned out of wire and spray painted.

Finding ways to use diverse materials is one of the reasons Winburn likes the Art Abilities program. “It challenges me,” he said. The wire can be hard to work with, but “it’s worth it in the end.”

His inspiration? “I like to fish, myself, and I just thought it’d look cool to make.”

The 16 artists who work here, all adults with developmental disabilities, are a busy bunch. They paint, sculpt and sketch for the world outside their doorway.

“We have lots of hands going,” instructor Peg Kendall said while showing me around the studio. “We always have the mind-set to have pieces in the community.”

Eric Winburn_Art Abilities
Erick Winburn’s fondness for fishing inspired the work-in-progress he sits beside in the Art Abilities classroom at New Perceptions.

Winburn’s sculpture, for instance, will be on display at the New Perceptions Annual Dinner on Aug. 23 at Receptions in Erlanger. Each artist “has a goal to be in the community themselves,” Kendall said, “so having their work in the community is an extension of that.”

Kendall’s enthusiasm for her students is apparent as she talks about them and their work. “They are the most motivated and creative people,” she said. The program doesn’t follow a curriculum. Instead the artists decide what they’re going to learn. “It comes from the heart,” Kendall said, “and it comes from them.”

With pride Kendall ticks off the community events the artists are preparing for. For the annual dinner, Kendall plans to display 25 to 30 pieces, enough to represent as many of the artists as possible. Currently eight pieces from the studio are entered in a show at Art Beyond Boundaries, a gallery on Main Street in Cincinnati that showcases and sells the works of local and regional artists with disabilities. On Aug. 5, that show will end and a new show will begin with, Kendall hopes, seven or eight pieces from her studio.

“They are the most motivated and creative people.”

The artists also will show their works at Art in the Park in Bellevue on Sept. 10. At Art on the Levee in Newport, visitors can find wire sculptures, similar to Winburn’s fisherman, for sale throughout the year.

Wire sculpture is a favorite among the artists, Kendall said. The studio started producing the sculptures about five years ago after researching and finding that no one else in the area was creating them, she said. The sculptures require fencing wire, rebar wire or “whatever we can lay our hands on.”

The artists, sometimes collaborating on the same sculpture, twist the wire into figures – a wire ball for the head and wire columns for the trunk, arms and legs – and then give them a job to do. Three wire figures, for example, appear to be rappelling on the wall outside the Art Abilities door.

pottery wheel
Tim Adams creates a piece at the pottery wheel.

In addition to paintings and sketches, program participants also work on tile mosaics, ceramics and engravings in glass and wood. Thanks to a recent grant from the Elsa Heisel Sule Foundation, the studio has added a pottery wheel and airbrushing equipment.

“We very much try to cater to their interests, even if it’s Pittsburgh Steelers junk,” Kendall said loud enough to get a reaction from Winburn and Bach, both fans of that other football team from that other city.

It’s all good-natured ribbing. A sense of camaraderie spreads easily through the room like paint on canvas.

“I love it,” Bach said when asked his opinion of the art program. He enjoys being in the studio, making friends and “being around that woman right there,” he said, pointing to Kendall.

Billy Bach recently finished this canvas painting. His next project will be a painting of Batman.

Bach recently finished a collage-type painting, and for his next project, he’ll paint Batman to fulfill a request from a customer. The studio occasionally gets requests for work, which encourages the artists, said Kendall, who is also the assistant manager of The Learning Center at New Perceptions.

When an artist sells work, half of the money goes to the artist and half to the Art Abilities program. Often the artists donate their half back to the program by using it to buy supplies, Kendall said. “They can see the difference they’re making.”

In addition to visual arts, Art Abilities also teaches sign language and music, including drums, piano and guitar. “Art Abilities is an all-day party,” Kendall said.

After visiting this all-day party, images of the artwork and the people have stayed with me. For some reason, though, one surprising image keeps coming to mind – the doorway to the Art Abilities room. Maybe it has stayed with me because it seemed so open and welcoming. Maybe I think of it because it stands in contrast to the many closed doors people with disabilities may encounter. The students who walk through this doorway have other doors opened to them – doors to creativity, to relationships with fellow artists, to the larger community. Open doors. Open hearts. Art Abilities.

The Art Abilities program is offered to adults 21 and older with a developmental disability. The potential participants also must have a Medicaid waiver. For more information and program availability, please contact Marlayna Cooney at

Top photo: A variety of works by Art Abilities students are displayed at the 2015 New Perceptions Annual Dinner.

Photos provided by New Perceptions.

About New Perceptions

I’d heard of the organization for years but wasn’t sure about what it offered. Development Director Emily Prabell broke it down for me with the following brief history and overview:

New Perceptions was founded by a group of concerned parents in 1952 to offer services that were scarce in the community at that time for children with special needs. Thanks to parents who wanted the best for their children, individuals with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities receive opportunities for education, growth and employment in a normalized setting to help each person reach his or her maximum potential.

Our Children Services program offers home-based and on-campus specialized therapeutic intervention – occupational, physical, and/or speech – for a variety of developmental needs. An eight-week summer program, Bridging the Gap, offers unique small-group therapy with a focus on sensory movement, social communication and therapeutic school-readiness.

Services for adults include Supported Employment, The Work Center and The Learning Center. Supported Employment offers in-depth, one-on-one support from employment specialists. Participants learn job skills, how to get a job, and techniques to cooperate with coworkers and supervisors to best succeed on the job.

The Work Center provides employment at the New Perceptions campus in parts assembly, kit assembly, collating, bagging, labeling, rework and packaging jobs for small items. Participants learn diverse work skills and increase independent functioning skills.

The Learning Center, new in January 2015, offers adult participants educational opportunities in three supportive settings. The Adult Learning Classroom offers structured learning in topics such as comprehensive reading, life skills reading, life skills math, cooking, health and current events. Adult Day is a relaxed setting for individuals who need greater one-on-one support in learning life skills. Activities are planned and led by staff throughout the day. Art Abilities is open to students who want to learn skills and/or express themselves through art such as sketching, water color, wire design, guitar, piano and sign language.

For more information about New Perceptions, visit its website at You can also learn the latest on its Facebook page.


The Great Bambinos

Young baseball players in blue jerseys and caps sat on the aluminum stands in the Saturday morning sun at Lincoln Woods Park in Florence. After a huddle in the infield that ended with the collective shout of “Team!” the players had just walked off the field of the season’s final game.

Parents, relatives and friends clapped and cheered as Coach Greg Ashcraft stood before the stands and called each player by name. Ashcraft tried to say a bit about the players, maybe how long they’d been in the league or how much they’d improved, as he presented trophies to celebrate a season well-played. Cameras snapped and players beamed as they shared their trophies with their fans.

The scene seemed familiar enough for this time of year. But each player on this team has special needs that might prevent him or her from playing on a traditional baseball team. So they came to play here — Bambino Buddy-Ball.


The faces. When I think of the Bambinos, I think of faces full of joy. Bright eyes and big smiles when players catch a ball or connect for a solid hit. I think of faces strong with determination. The intent and focus when players dart for first, kick up dirt as they round the bases, and bound onto home plate to punctuate their score.

This spring marked the fourth season in our area for Bambino Buddy-Ball, a division of Northern Kentucky Baseball. It was the fourth season to experience the excitement of America’s pastime and to learn what it means to belong to a team. The fourth season to play the game with joyful determination.

My daughter has played Buddy-Ball for two seasons, so I’ve watched a game or two. The faces of fellow fans are something to see too – full of excitement, pride and hope. All these great expressions on all these faces caused me to wonder about the league. What’s its past? What’s its future?

To find out, I talked with Ashcraft. One of the lucky people who turned his love of sports into his vocation, Ashcraft makes his living training and coaching youth athletes in the area. For NKB, Ashcraft is a utility player. He plays administrator, sitting on the organization’s board of directors and overseeing the Bambinos. He plays coach, guiding Bambino players during Saturday morning games. And he plays baseball dad, cheering on daughter Grace, one of the Bambinos.

Bambino Buddy-Ball gets its name from one of the many nicknames of legendary baseball player George Herman “Babe” Ruth. It was established in 2000 by the national Babe Ruth League, with which NKB is affiliated. The young Northern Kentucky division has been in a building phase. Word is spreading, the division is growing, and this season, Ashcraft said, 55 players wore the Bambino patch on their uniform.

Pawsat Pro Photo
Team photo by Pawsat Pro Photo.

It takes a community

Marketing is a key to growing the Buddy-Ball division, said Ashcraft, who came on board two years ago. Through his involvement in the community, Ashcraft spreads the word about the Bambinos in an effort to reach new players and find corporate support and sponsors. A Step Ahead Pediatric Therapy sponsors the Bambinos, helping NKB to offer Buddy-Ball at no cost to its players.

Ashcraft relies on a lot of people for help. “I couldn’t do it without volunteers,” he said.

Other NKB teams come out to the Bambino fields each week to help as buddies and coaches.  The volunteers signed up with enthusiasm this season, Ashcraft said, noting that when he sent out a volunteer list with open spots, it got filled immediately. Each Saturday, 20 to 24 volunteers were needed.

A Saturday morning during the Buddy-Ball season is a family affair for the Ashcrafts. Along with Greg and 12-year-old Grace, daughter Hayley, 20, and son Grant, 10, put on their blue shirts and head out to the field. Hayley coaches the younger Bambinos with her dad, and Grant helps as a buddy. Wife Kym watches from the stands.

Baseball binds the family together, Hayley said. “We’re all going to be there, no matter what.”

For the Bambinos, “having fun is all that really matters.”

Hayley told me she’s worked a lot with children with special needs throughout her life, including volunteering with Special Olympics swimming. That work seemed a good fit for the former high school swimmer, but because she wasn’t a baseball player, she wasn’t so sure about coaching when she started last year. “My dad just kind of roped me into it,” she said.

She found herself at ease soon enough. She saw the energy the players had and how excited they were. “It changed my life,” she said. For the Bambinos, “having fun is all that really matters.”

Looking to the future, one particular challenge for the program is limited facilities. The Bambinos play on dirt fields, which can be uneven and difficult for players with walkers and wheelchairs or other mobility issues. There are other leagues for ballplayers with special needs, such as the Miracle League in Cincinnati, that play on synthetic turf. Ashcraft would like to see those kinds of fields on this side of the river for the growing special needs population in Northern Kentucky.

Along those lines, Ashcraft continues to appeal to the community and corporations for support.  “We want to continue to make it grow,” he said. “We can make it successful here.”

 A love of the game

It may be an odd question when we live in the Cincinnati Reds backyard, but I asked anyway: Why baseball?

“They feel like they’re a part of something,” Ashcraft said of the players. “The experience to get out on a field … and just have that moment to be in the limelight.” It’s an amazing experience, he said, and he hopes the players learn, that even more than winning, “it’s about going out there loving the game.”

In Bambino Buddy-Ball, everyone hits, everyone fields, no one sits out and no one gets out. The players might warm up and work on skills before being divided into teams to take turns at bat and in the field. This season the division played on two fields – one for younger players who hit off a tee, and one for older players hitting machine pitches and off a tee.

Bambinos range in age from 4 to 18, though exceptions may be made, and they are placed on teams according to their age and skills. Buddies help according to need. Some players want a buddy next to them at all times, even running the bases with them. Other players are more independent, but generally everyone gets paired with a buddy in the field. If parents aren’t sure which team is best for their children, Ashcraft evaluates their skills and places them where they will grow as players and have fun.

My daughter certainly enjoys being a Bambino. Anna, 17, said she feels proud and excited to play baseball, especially because she’s following in the footsteps of an older brother. “We get to catch and stuff and we bat,” she told me the morning of the season’s last game after I asked to interview her. “When I bat I have to try to hit it hard and quickly. Sometimes I miss and sometimes I don’t miss and I run to the bases when I hit.”

She also likes being on the field with the volunteers. “There was the Red Dragons that helped us,” she said. “I have a couple of people that are boys that run with me.”

high fives
Bambinos line up to shake hands with their buddies after Saturday’s game. Photo by Susan Cline Photography.

Missie and Don Lunnemann appreciate the interaction with peers that their 12-year-old gets while playing Buddy-Ball. “Jake loves working with the other kids,” Missie said as she stood with her husband near the field before the game. The buddies benefit from the experience too, she said, because they get to know the players, see their abilities and talk baseball with them.

Jake has become more social over the past couple of years, Missie said, and Buddy-Ball has helped. Don agreed, adding, “Experiencing a typical athletic sport is very good for him as well.” The couple also praised Ashcraft. “I appreciate Greg’s dedication,” Don said.

Ashcraft champions baseball’s ability to instill confidence and increase independence. He works hard, he said, to encourage independence among the players and their parents. For some parents, this is the first time to turn their child over to someone else, to sit back and watch. For the players, baseball creates memories of accomplishment that they can rely on to bolster confidence in other areas of their lives, he said.

Ashcraft’s most memorable moments on the field swirl around the expressions on the players’ faces and the heart that they bring to the game. He takes joy in their joy when they hold and swing a bat by themselves, when they experience the success of hitting the ball. He enjoys watching them in the field, even when they’re playing in the dirt.

For all of us who love children, it’s an amazing privilege to watch a child grow. Ashcraft said he’s rewarded with that each week during baseball season. And then there’s the impact on the parents. Parents have told him, “I never knew my child could do that.” These are the home-run moments of the job.


As Saturday’s trophy presentation came to a close, Ashcraft encouraged the players to keep practicing and working hard. He told them to invite others they meet to come out to play with them in the spring. The players climbed down from the stands and prepared to leave the ballpark. No one seemed concerned about wins and losses, outs or hits. They just seemed happy to have had a chance to put on a uniform and play baseball.

Babe Ruth once said, “Never let the fear of striking out keep you from coming up to bat.” As for the players leaving the field on Saturday, they are all great Bambinos.


Find out more

Go to Northern Kentucky Baseball at for more information on its Bambino Buddy-Ball division or contact Greg Ashcraft at


Credit: Top photo by Susan Cline Photography.

Theater invites guests to ‘feel free to be you’

AMC logo

When Max and Duke romp onto the big screen in The Secret Life of Pets this weekend, a Northern Kentucky movie theater will turn the lights up and the sound down so some special patrons can watch the dogs’ animated antics in comfort.

The accommodations are part of Sensory Friendly Films at AMC Newport on the Levee 20. The film series, offered by AMC Theatres in partnership with the Autism Society, invites guests with autism and other special needs to “feel free to be you.”

The screenings offer a more relaxed atmosphere for moviegoers, said Kevin Coffman, a supervisor at the Levee theater. If viewers like to get up, walk around or make noises, that’s all OK. The audience is more understanding, he said. Guests also are welcome to bring their own snacks.

The theater shows Sensory Friendly Films on the second and fourth Saturday and Tuesday of each month. The Saturday shows begin at 10 a.m. – that’s when you can catch The Secret Life of Pets this weekend.

The Tuesday shows begin at 7 p.m. and were added last summer for guests looking for more mature films, said Ryan Noonan, AMC’s director of corporate communications. Originally focused on families and children, the film series expanded to meet more needs, Noonan said. “We’ve seen kids grow up now.”

The movies for each month are selected by AMC’s film department according to demographics and popularity. Almost half of AMC’s theaters offer Sensory Friendly Films, Noonan said. A check of their website showed 175 participating theaters. The Newport on the Levee location was the only one listed in the Northern Kentucky/Cincinnati area.

Coffman, the local theater supervisor, said moviegoers at the Levee have told him they appreciate the opportunity to view films in the modified environment. Crowds vary depending on the movie, he said. An average crowd may be 20 to 30 people, while a long-awaited movie like Finding Dory might attract as many as 50 to 100, he said.

Saturday morning movies cost $5.61. Tuesday evening tickets sell for $11.12.  Guests can get their Levee parking tickets validated at a booth near the movie ticket office so that they pay $1.25 to park.


In 2007, a Maryland mother asked her local AMC Theatres manager to arrange a special screening for children on the autism spectrum after she’d had a bad experience with her young daughter at another movie theater. The manager agreed, the mother talked it up, and so many people showed up for the movie that the auditorium couldn’t hold them all, according to

The manager added more movies and contacted AMC headquarters with the idea. The Autism Society partnered with AMC, and the film series grew to include theaters across the country. You can read more about it on the Autism Society’s website here.

Summer lineup of Sensory Friendly Films

  • Saturday, July 9: The Secret Life of Pets
  • Tuesday, July 12: BFG
  • Saturday, July 23: Ice Age: Collision Course
  • Tuesday, July 26:  Ghostbusters
  • Tuesday, August 9: Suicide Squad
  • Saturday, August 13 and 27: Pete’s Dragon
  • Tuesday, August 23: War Dogs

Check the AMC Theatres website for current Sensory Friendly Films here.

Have you attended a Sensory Friendly Film? Would you like to share your experience? If so, please leave a comment. Thank you!

Governor’s Scholars host dance

UPDATE: THE DANCE HAS BEEN CANCELED DUE TO LACK OF RESPONSE. If your idea of a good night is music, dancing, food and friends, mark July 23 on your calendar. That’s the night people with special needs will be treated to a summer dance at Northern Kentucky University hosted by students in the Kentucky Governor’s … Continue reading “Governor’s Scholars host dance”


If your idea of a good night is music, dancing, food and friends, mark July 23 on your calendar. That’s the night people with special needs will be treated to a summer dance at Northern Kentucky University hosted by students in the Kentucky Governor’s Scholars Program.

Special guests’ families, friends and partners also are invited to the dance, which will run from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. in the auxiliary gym of the Campus Recreation Center.

GSP Healthcare class
Governor’s scholars in Teresa Hoffmann’s healthcare class participate in an activity symbolizing that everyone is connected as a community. The class will host a dance for people with special needs on July 23.

The dance will bring people of differing abilities together to celebrate community, said organizer Teresa Hoffmann, a faculty member in the Governor’s Scholars Program. “They are all participants in just a joyful evening.”

Hoffmann’s healthcare class of 20 students will be “elegant hosts,” she said. The students will show guests to tables, provide light refreshments of water and fruit, invite guests to dance and serve any other needs they may have. Other faculty members and resident assistants also will be on hand to help.

The dance isn’t a formal. No special attire is required. Hoffmann said she envisions a casual party where folks go to dance, listen to music or feel the music’s vibrations. She wants to offer an activity that includes people who may often feel isolated.

‘They are all participants in just a joyful evening.’

The Kentucky Governor’s Scholars Program is a highly competitive five-week summer residential program for rising high school seniors in the state. Established in 1983, the program aims to “enhance Kentucky’s next generation of civic and economic leaders,” according to its website. Colleges compete to host the scholars for three-year cycles. NKU, Morehead State University and Murray State University were selected as hosts for 2016 to 2018. This summer, 354 of the scholars are studying at NKU, Hoffmann said.

The program’s curriculum often includes service learning. Along those lines, Hoffmann’s healthcare students volunteer at the Given Campus of Stepping Stones near Cincinnati. The non-profit organization provides programs for children and adults with disabilities. It works to “increase independence, improve lives and promote inclusion,” according to its mission statement.

Through their volunteer work, Hoffmann’s students are learning to interact and communicate with people in different ways. They are learning patience, she said, and compassion. Her students have told her that their work at Stepping Stones is humbling because they are meeting people who live with extraordinary difficulties yet have happy, positive attitudes.

The dance will celebrate the relationships and connections formed at Stepping Stones and include the larger community in the fun, said Hoffmann, who organized similar dances in Louisville while working with the Governor’s Scholars Program in the past.

If you would like to attend, please call the NKU Governor’s Scholars Program office at 859-448-8820 by July 20 with the number in your party. Minors must be accompanied by an adult.

 You’re invited …

Event: a summer dance for people with special needs and their families, friends and partners

Date: July 23

Time: 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Place: Northern Kentucky University, auxiliary gym in the Campus Recreation Center

Cost: free

Parking: free in the Kenton Drive Parking Garage

RSVP: by July 20 to 859-448-8820 with the number of people in your party. Minors must be accompanied by an adult.

For a campus map, click here.