“A lot of times when you are a special needs family, you are the one that stands out,” Cathy said. “But when you walk through these doors, you’re just another family, and sometimes just being one of the crowd is one of the best feelings in the world.”
— Cathy Kesterson, ESP Special Events Coordinator
To Cathy and Ross Kesterson, Extra Special People is more than just a community. It is the place that gave their daughter, Kyla, a way to express herself amongst her friends and their son Ben a way to form meaningful relationships with people of all abilities.
“ESP has just given us opportunities for Kyla to form relationships and to enjoy life independent of us, but it also gave us the opportunity for the relationships that Ben has been able to create,” Cathy said.
After Kyla passed away last summer, the Kestersons thought it was important to keep their daughter’s love for ESP going. This August, Cathy began working as the Special Events Coordinator at Extra Special People as a way to give back to the place that gave her daughter so much.
“I feel that my best way of continuing to show Kyla the love I don’t have the ability to show her now is by giving back to everyone else,” Cathy said. “ I know how much ESP meant to her.”
The Kestersons’ first interaction with ESP was in 2009 after a friend talked them into attending their very first Big Hearts. As a mom of a child with a profound disability, Cathy had a hard time watching Kyla go backstage with people she didn’t know the first time.
“I was a nervous wreck because I handed my child over to either a young high school student or a college student, and I was like ‘What in the world have I gotten myself into?’” Cathy said.
After her first time on stage, Kyla’s favorite event of the year was always Big Hearts. All of the makeup, dresses and sparkles were her thing.
“She loved getting dolled up. She loved getting her hair done and putting on makeup,” Cathy said. “She was just a girly girl.”
One year, Kyla narrated Big Hearts with her voice box, and another she was named Special Young Miss! Cathy says she clearly remembers trying to get Kyla’s dress off without taking off the sash she won.
“We slept in our makeup, we slept in our crown, we slept in our sash,” Cathy said. “That wasn’t coming off.”
After their first Big Hearts experience, the Kestersons all became more involved in ESP in 2010 when Cathy first sent Kyla to her first week of day camp.
“I never left the parking lot all day long,” Cathy said. “I sweat my guts out because I was terrified of leaving her, but she loved it and she had an amazing time.”
Once Cathy saw how much Kyla enjoyed camp, she decided to send her back for two weeks of camp the next year. Their involvement at ESP kept growing until the Kestersons were fully immersed in the ESP community, including their son Ben.
“One of the things that has always struck me is that since Ben grew up with such a diverse group of kids, he really he doesn’t see any disabilities,” Cathy said. “These are his peers.”
Ben had been involved in ESP since he was 5-years-old, and Cathy remembers him counting down the years until he was old enough to be a camp volunteer. As soon as he was old enough, the Kestersons sent both Ben and Kyla to camp for the first time together.
“It was funny because we had told Kyla that Ben would be at camp, but I don’t think she ever thought that we were serious about it,” Cathy said.
Kyla stared at her brother the whole way to camp, and Cathy remembers overhearing Ben and Kyla’s conversation.
“I heard Ben say, ‘Stop staring at me, sissy. Stop staring at me, sissy,’ and then finally I hear him, and he goes ‘It’s getting awkward now!’” Cathy said.
After Ben’s first day at camp, he came home and talked to his mom about his day. He said he didn’t know if he was making it fun for his buddy who was a camper with limited verbal communication. Cathy said she was surprised he had this reaction since his sister was non-verbal, and she told him that if he had fun, his buddy would also have fun.
At the end of the week, Ben’s buddy finally laughed and expressed his happiness in a way that Ben could be aware of. Cathy said that in that moment, Ben had formed his own meaningful relationship with ESP where he got to define what ESP meant to him.
“I wondered, did Ben love ESP because of the fact that our family was so wrapped up in ESP?” Cathy said. “I’ve always wanted to know exactly where he stood like truly where he stood and it was crazy.”
The morning that Kyla passed away, Cathy walked into Ben’s room to let him know. The first thing he said was, “What do we do about ESP now?” and Cathy said that he needed to decide what he wanted to do since he was supposed to be a counselor for the summer.
“On his own, he chose to come back, and I think that that might even be a greater gift than all the happy memories that they gave to Kyla,” Cathy said. “Because this place, for the volunteers, gives you a sense of something bigger than you and what is important in life.”