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Mother found 'healing' in work with the disabled community

The Daily Herald - 12/6/2018

This is one of a collection of stories about nonprofits in Snohomish County.

MARYSVILLE — Jacob Byron took his girlfriend, Justine Hagan, to a sock hop about eight years ago.

It was their first time at a celebration hosted by Eagle Wings disAbility Ministries. Since then, they've gone to about one event every month.

Eagle Wings is a nonprofit that organizes gatherings in Snohomish County for adults with disabilities. They put together about 40 occasions per year, and serve more than 2,200 people. The program is based in Marysville.

Byron was diagnosed with Prader-Willi syndrome when he was two weeks old, and Hagan was born with Down syndrome, said Byron's mom, Tammy Byron.

Jacob Byron is 25, and Hagan is 26. They grew up in Granite Falls, and decided in the sixth grade they were going to get married. The family hopes to have a ceremony some day to celebrate their love.

For now, they're having fun dining and dancing with their friends at the Eagle Wings parties.

Tammy Byron is usually their chaperone. She appreciates that there's a safe space for the two to have a social life and be independent.

"They are just happy to be together, and that's my favorite thing," she said.

She has known Kinder Smoots, the director of Eagle Wings, since Jacob Byron was a baby. He was in a class with Smoots' daughter.

Smoots has run the program for more than a decade. It was founded by a retired pastor named Henk Wapstra in 2000.

In the beginning, there was one Christmas dinner that fed 60 people. After a few years, Wapstra decided he needed help. A friend gave him Smoots' phone number.

She was in bed when he called. She hadn't left the house in almost a month.

Her daughter, Kayla Holdaway, had recently died from complications of a disease called arthrogryposis. The disorder includes a number of rare conditions that usually affect joints and muscles.

"During that time of depression I was crying in bed, saying, 'What good can come out of taking a child like this?'" Smoots said. "Eagle Wings was the answer to that question."

Holdaway was outgoing and wise beyond her years, Smoots said. She was 11 years old when she died in September 2003.

Smoots agreed to help Wapstra with the holiday meal that year. It was scheduled for the first week of December.

Smoots didn't realize how much work she had taken on. The crowd ended up being almost four times larger than it had been in previous years.

"Being part of this organization it just, it changed me," Smoots said. "It brought me my own healing out of the grief of losing my daughter. At that point I didn't know if I was going to survive that loss."

She didn't want to wait an entire year to invite the community out again. She started adding more celebrations each year.

The goal is to bring adults with disabilities out of isolation, Smoots said.

"They don't get out very much, so we provide opportunities for them to get out in a loving environment," she said.

Smoots doesn't publicly announce event schedules. Those who are interested can contact the organization to be placed on a mailing list for the next get-together. Invitations are sent out in the order the requests are received.

The program is focused on making connections and doesn't provide social services. However, volunteers often offer links to local workplaces.

"Those are business owners who then have a touch point with this population," Smoots said. "They are more apt to be open to having a person with special needs come help in their business."

She usually plans an event for every holiday and season. In winter there's a Valentine's Day dance, during spring there's a Hawaiian luau and in summer they rent out the Forest Park Swim Center.

Most people who attend have been diagnosed with a developmental disability, Smoots said.

"We don't really turn a ton of people away," she said. "But a person would quickly realize, 'OK, I'm able to serve as a volunteer, rather than be a guest.'"

Smoots has made an effort to treat this community as she would her own family.

She can think of hundreds of stories that have come from Eagle Wings. One that stands out is her own.

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