Twins from Sonora, now Summerville High School seniors, met their neighbor Sinclair Darr, who has Down Syndrome, over 12 years ago.
“Sinclair has absolutely changed my life,” Erika Simonson, 18, said.
“Both of our lives,” chimed in her sister Alexis Simonson, 18.
Darr, 21, a student at the Adults Transitions program in Sonora, the 2014 Sonora High School homecoming queen, and a Special Olympics gold medalist for swimming, said the Simonson sisters were much more than friends or neighbors, they were family.
“We've been good friends a long time, since we were little actually,” she said. “I call them sissies because they are like my sisters. Because they are nice to you, we hang out together. Sometimes we go shopping together or dance. Sometimes we swim together.”
The twins each intended to develop a senior project that recognized their close relationship to Darr, and to advocate for the special needs community that they had learned so much about through her.
Last Friday, Alexis Simonson put on a prom at Summerville High School exclusively for more than a hundred special needs students and adults, and the rousing success of the event has prompted assurances that it will be held annually, she said.
“A lot of them have never been to one, but in high school they all wanted to go to one,” she said. “It was so amazing. I think they loved it.”
After culling community resources and donations, Alexis said she ended up spending money on the decorations. A photographer, a DJ, food and drinks, were all donated by community members.
“There was a lot of dancing,” she said, laughing.
During the event, the attendees were invited to dress up in traditional prom clothes for a night filled with music and a special recognition of the special needs community.
“To have an event specifically for them and to celebrate them, it’s really special,” Erika Simonson said. “It was upbeat, and there was so much positive energy. They were having so much fun.”
Darr remembered the prom fondly as an opportunity to do one of things she likes best: dancing.
“I liked it because I love to dance a lot and I like to dance with people,” Darr said. “I like the drinks, desserts and pictures and I loved taking pictures with them.”
Erika Simonson’s senior project will also have the longevity to inspire the special needs community of the Mother Lode into perpetuity, after securing a donor-advised fund with the Sonora Area Foundation to support Special Olympics athletes and the nonprofit Work Activities for Tuolumne County Handicapped (WATCH) program.
The Everybody’s Able fund had been a personal project to her, she said, after years of coaching floor hockey, swimming, golf and basketball with the Special Olympics program in Tuolumne County.
“I think it’s cool they like to help people with different lives,” Sinclair Darr said.
The community foundation requires $5,000 to maintain a fund, Erika Simonson said, but as of Wednesday, she said she had garnered more than $6,000 in donations. On April 20, the senior project portion of the fund will be complete, she added, but after that, she intends to seek out donations as a personal project.
The Simonson twins father, Todd Simonson, noted in an email that he and his wife had contributed only $100 to the fund. The vast majority of the donations, more than $5,500, Erika Simonson said, was the result of door-to-door knocking throughout the community.
“It’s very difficult to go ask strangers for money,” she said. “It was not easy but it was well worth it.
Both of the projects emphasized a core value of the Simonson twins that they had learned from their relationship with Darr: compassion for the differences of others. Many have thanked them for their efforts, and some of the attendees told them the prom was their first, they said.
“Everyone who’s different, they all have the same wants as us. They want to be involved and loved by the community,” Alexis Simonson said. “We definitely consider Sinclair as a sister rather than just a neighbor or a friend.”
“They teach you to be respectful to everyone and open your eyes,” Erika Simonson added.
Both Alexis and Erika Simonson plan to attend California State University, Sacramento, after their graduation from Summerville High School to pursue degrees in business. Their dream is to become financial advisors, return to Sonora, and take over their father’s business, they said.
And though their plans were not centered on advocacy, they plan to remain involved in Special Olympics programs, fundraising and volunteering well into adulthood.
“I think we will definitely support it forever,” Erika Simonson said.