In a pre-pandemic world, to feel joyful was to dance like no one was watching. But we are no longer in a pre-pandemic world, and while dancing alone might sometimes feel great, dancing with each other is a joy we won’t again take for granted.

For the members of the Highland Friendship Club (HFC), dancing with one another during COVID was made a reality thanks to their long-standing partnership with the University of St. Thomas’ Special Olympics Club. The Special Olympics Club, recently honored by Campus Compact with the Presidents’ Student Leadership Award, once again went above and beyond to stay connected with the community and to put a little joy into the atmosphere.

The club’s two student leaders, Natalie Stoner and Mikaela Lindell, worked tirelessly with university staff in order for their idea to become a reality. The idea? A Zoom dance party with the members of the St. Thomas Special Olympics Club and their partners at HFC, a group of individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities in the Highland Park area. The results of this simple idea speak for themselves.

Of course, while the idea may have been simple, the success of the event was due to a long relationship between the two organizations. The relationship has been strong for many years, and this year more than 200 students have participated in this collaboration, meeting monthly to engage in activities like bowling, painting and yard games with HFC. The students used campus resources to promote inclusive, accessible environments for students and community members to connect. By cultivating this relationship over a period of time, the Special Olympics Club was able to pivot quickly to move their community engagement online. They knew exactly what would resonate with their friends at HFC.

The dance parties are not the student club’s only contact with their community partners, however.

“We are also having social groups, so there are three groups of a few St. Thomas students and a few HFC members that meet virtually weekly to check in and socialize,” Stoner said.

“We are actively working on planning more virtual events for this summer,” added Lindell.

Like so many acts of kindness and community spirit, the result of this event reached far beyond those who participated. After seeing the video at the Center for the Common Good’s weekly check-in, Executive Director Theresa Ricke-Kiely had this to say: “I danced as I watched it!  Fabulous.”

Stoner, who will be graduating and moving to Texas to get her master’s degree in genetic counseling, doesn’t anticipate that distance will stand in her way when it comes to keeping connected to HFC.

I plan to continue the friendships even when I am away,” she said. “I feel grateful to know I am leaving the club in great hands. So much joy and so many friendships have come out of this club.”

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