Two-hundred guests enjoyed Santa, presents and dancing at the annual Christmas party.
By Mary O’KEEFE
Christmas tradition that started 42 years ago was again celebrated on Sunday at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church when about 200 people attended one of the biggest and most festive Christmas parties of the year.
“It is an event started by my dad,” said Grace Chase of her dad Vito Cannella. “It is a combined effort of many good people doing something good for others.”
The party’s guest list included adults who are developmentally disabled.
“My sister is on the autistic spectrum,” Chase said. Her sister was diagnosed at the age of 2. “Back then there was a stigma attached to the [developmentally disabled]. [Parents] were told to put their child in an institution, but my dad [and mom] didn’t do that. My dad has fought for services for her his whole life.”
The Cannellas began working with organizations that served the developmentally disabled community like Tierra del Sol in Sunland. The Tierra del Sol Foundation was established about 44 years ago by families searching for an alternative to institutionalizing their children, according to www.tierradelsol.org.
“He would take [my sister] to Tierra del Sol and they got to know a lot of people,” Chase said.
Unfortunately as Cannella researched getting help for his daughter he met a lot of sad and lonely people. He discovered that there were some families of people with disabilities that did not know how to deal with their child and would just leave them at an institution. With the help of family and staff at Tierra del Sol, the Cannellas soon became family to others. Chase’s dad wanted to do something that most families do around the holidays – get together for a nice dinner and share presents.
“It has evolved [over the years],” Chase said.
It is now a big party with about 85 guests invited from Tierra del Sol as well as from facilities in Glendale and Pasadena. There is a traditional dinner prepared and holiday gifts shared, but the party has grown into much more due, in part, to the efforts of Julie Kay and her studio, Revolution Dance Center in Montrose.
“Julie has a heart for this population,” Chase said.
She met Kay about 15 years ago when Chase’s daughter took lessons at RDC. They began talking about the holiday party.
“She said, ‘Why don’t I bring a group of kids there?’” Chase said.
That idea has grown from dancers performing from her center to actually choreographing a dance for those at local facilities.
“Grace asked me over 10 years ago to come and bring my dancers to perform,” Kay said. “We have a performance just before the [party] and we tied it in.”
This year her dancers performed little samples of their holiday performances that had been done recently at the Lanterman Theatre. Kay’s students’ families contributed, too.
“Our parents wrapped the gifts for the party,” Kay said.
Kay volunteers many hours to bring dance to the developmentally disabled community. She works with students at Glendale Unified School District’s College View School twice a month and teaches dance to others at a Pasadena studio. RDC has developmentally disabled dancers as part of their troop. Kay waves the fees for these families.
“Their medical bills are so high. We want to give the families a little break,” Kay explained. “For the holiday show we had six [developmentally disabled] kids and two performances … I wanted parents to just sit down, relax and watch their child perform.”
Kay’s dancers collected funds over the holiday for their fellow performers to help cover some of the medical and personal costs. She added that all of her students respect each other as a family of performers.
At Saturday’s event, all of Kay’s dancers performed to cheering crowds and at the end everyone was invited to join them in RDC’s version of the Cha Cha.
Chase said it all comes together, though the event is not part of a non-profit nor is it an organization in itself. The annual Christmas party just happens through the generosity of others.
As her father has aged it is more difficult for him to lead the party, so Chase has taken over many of his duties. She sent out a letter just after Thanksgiving to all of her friends in the community asking for gifts for the guests.
“I come home to find presents at my front door,” she said. “I have to give kudos to Holy Redeemer; the parish provides gifts and the venue for us.”
Friends and community members also donate to the party.
“This community …. people drop off food and money,” she said.
Although they only meet once a year at the party, the participants remember Chase and all of her volunteers’ names.
“They write these beautiful notes,” Chase said.
Although the party is for others, Chase walks away with something as well.
“In a world where we turn on the news and hear about how bad people can be, I truly believe there are good people in the world,” she said.
In the end, the party holds maintains its original goal of giving this community of people a safe place to celebrate and dance.
“It was my father’s vision to make everyone feel accepted,” Chase said, “especially at Christmas time.”