Unlike in years past, San Clemente-area adults living with disabilities and their caregivers have a space nearby where they can simply socialize and enjoy themselves without worrying about the need for extra assistance.
That opportunity was made possible by Stratton Palmer, who founded The Happening in 2022 to do just that.
Palmer spent 14 years in the Capistrano Unified School District as a behavioral support specialist, crafting plans to help students with special needs shed challenging behaviors.
In addition to working at a day program, he also started a special needs ministry at Mountain View Church in San Juan Capistrano to give families of children with special needs a place where they can feel comfortable dropping off their loved ones.
“I’m proud to say now I have about 90 members that come to ministry every week,” said Palmer. “A lot of them started coming, not necessarily to get to know God, but (because) it was a place where they could be with their friends, have fun and meet (new) friends. And I was totally OK with that.”
An increasing number of people told him they wished a similar place existed on a broader scale, which gave him the idea to start his business. Palmer said he was able to step back and identify a need for socialization within the field, as adults with special needs face challenges that people who are neurotypical do not.
“At a lot of places—not that they’re not welcomed—parents maybe are hesitant, they’re worried,” said Palmer. “They don’t feel comfortable (dropping off) because they don’t know if (places) have the accommodations or if the staff know what to do if an event or something arises.”
After a seven-month process to get the permitting and all other factors handled, The Happening opened earlier this year on March 1.
Located at the rear of a business complex along Camino De Los Mares, members of the subscription-based social club have access to plenty of varying fun activities.
Inside are four large televisions, all connected to popular streaming services, of which three can also be used for gaming on the PlayStation, Nintendo Switch, and other consoles; couches and tables; an air hockey table, a pool table and a mini putt-putt game; as well as a section full of board games.
The social club is open for four- to six-hour periods Monday to Sunday, when members can drop in and leave freely throughout the club’s hours.
Membership is $300 per month with unlimited access. When signing up, families and care providers fill out questionnaires that provide information on whether potential members have any behaviors that require intervention, such as a tendency to hit others, or independent needs, to help determine if a member can be dropped off or if they need a care provider with them.
Palmer said his role is to augment his members’ experiences and create a fun atmosphere, as members can come in and do what they want but may struggle in engaging with others.
“In this field, the social aspect is hard for a lot of them, (such as) engaging with friends, communicating, sharing, and talking about their day,” he said. “Sometimes I have to almost pull it out of them. That’s probably what I’m here for, is when I see an individual sitting by themselves, I’m having them engage.”
Over the few first months, The Happening has seen roughly 40 members sign up, and Palmer said the organization will continue to grow as the school year has ended and families want to figure out their plans for the summer.
He spoke about the support the club has received from the community and said the feedback from families has been amazing.
A member’s father recently shared with Palmer that his son had increased his interactions with people he knew in public places, something that didn’t happen before the son was able to spend time with people at The Happening.
Wanda Gennaro, the grandmother of 24-year-old member Ryann Slowinski, said Slowinski comes Mondays through Thursdays and enjoys being in a social space.
“It’s doing wonders for Ryann,” Gennaro said. “She doesn’t speak, but she’s just (always) smiling.”
The club is also beneficial to families, according to Palmer.
“Families are beyond excited about this because this is just as much for them as it is for the members,” he said. “It’s a time where families can get that much-needed respite time. It provides families the opportunity to get a break, to spend time doing what they want.”
Palmer looks to grow his club even more in the coming months. He said he’s been encouraged by the state of California’s decision to utilize respite hours, allowing for the state-contracted Regional Center of Orange County to reimburse families for spending money on services that care for their children with special needs.
“We’re excited to grow, we’re excited to get more members in this community,” Palmer said. “We’re excited to (possibly have) other cities follow suit of San Clemente and open other locations in Orange County.”
More information about The Happening, located 657 Camino De Los Mares, #130, can be found at thehappeningoc.com.