WORCESTER – Like many 29-year-olds, Kristen M. Karpowicz loves to dance with friends, so when the Kasbar closed in May and she found out the weekly dances she attended there with other friends with disabilities were going to end, she was devastated.
Her mother, Barbara J. Karpowicz, said Kristen, who is developmentally delayed, has always loved music.
“It was a source of learning in her speaking,” Mrs. Karpowicz said.
Kristen’s favorite song is “Falling in Love With You” by Elvis Presley, because, she said, it makes her heart beat really fast. She recently cut her long hair and donated it to a child who lost their hair from cancer treatments.
Kristen is very social, her mother said, and only works a few hours a week, at a company in Westboro. Going to dances with friends at the former Sh-Booms in downtown Worcester on Wednesdays before it closed and then the Kasbar before it was sold and closed in May was something Kristen, who lives in Worcester, cherished.
The Kasbar owners’ daughter has special needs, and for 12 years, they offered to hold a dance there on Tuesday nights, Mrs. Karpowicz said.
“When the Kasbar closed, I felt distraught about it,” she said. “I was shocked and sad because I did not want to miss dancing the night away at the Kasbar and with my best friend Sheila (Burbank).”
Not sure what to do next, but not wanting to let her daughter down, Mrs. Karpowicz, a triage operator at UMass Memorial Medical Center, decided to start the dances up herself somewhere else.
“Instead of waiting for someone else to step up, I got right on it, and there was only one week with them not having a dance,” she said. “It was a crazy-fast whirlwind thing.”
In July, with $675 in donations, she opened an account at People’s United Bank on Gold Star Boulevard, and the Don’t Stop the Music nonprofit was born in August.
Ms. Karpowicz enlisted the help of her friend Sheila M. Burbank, 62, who is physically disabled from diabetes and who attended the dances with Theresa Erickson, 58, who has Down syndrome and whom Ms. Burbank provided care to. The women asked the Eagles Club for help that “does a lot for people with special needs.” Daniel M. Lawton, owner of Wild Willy’s, also offered use of his restaurant, Ms. Karpowicz's husband, Brian, learned to DJ to help out Paul Rossick and Judy Elliott, who had DJ'ed the dances for years.
“I had exhausted my family for money, so I decided to do a raffle,” Ms. Karpowicz said. “I got a call from Dan (owner of Wild Willy’s). He said, ‘I hear you are looking for a $25 gift card. I don’t feel like a $25 gift card is enough. I’d like to offer you my facility.’ He is just an angel and a godsend. The whole staff is amazing. He makes sure everybody has what they need.”
Don't Stop the Music, for special needs adults and children to dance together, meets every Tuesday from 6 to 8 p.m. — the first Tuesday of the month at the Eagles Club, 53 Norfolk St., and the other Tuesdays of the month at Wild Willy's on West Boylston Street. Admission is free, but donations are accepted.
Mrs. Karpowicz said the dance is all-inclusive and is also attended by people without disabilities. It is a great feeling to see the smiles on everyone’s faces, she said.
“I think we get more out of it than they do, honestly,” she said. “It takes a lot of love and determination, and I’m only as successful as my volunteers, friends and family, who give their heart and soul to this. I could not have done it without Sheila.”
Mr. Lawton said donating space for the event aligns with his mission of running a charity one day with his wife.
“I just had empathy, not specifically for special needs, but more of as a father,” he said. “I could tell it was so important to her (Ms. Karpowicz) to give her daughter this night back that they have grown to love. I saw the look in her and her husband’s eyes. They had grown a family with the whole community, and that was kind of taken away because the bar closed.”
Mr. Lawton clears out the tables to prepare the space and offers discounted meals to people who are part of the group. He said his entire staff feels great.
“Everybody wants to work on those nights to be part of it,” he said. “Whether you are having a bad day or good day, it puts things back into perspective to give everybody a good time. Suddenly you realize your problems aren’t that bad. This may be their only time out, and sometimes it is worked into their behavior plan as an incentive to carry on in life every other day.”
Ms. Burbank, who is involved in the nonprofit, said she loves to get out and dance and see everyone is having a good time.
“We all get along,” she said. “They all look for me and Barbara, and they love it.”
Her 8-year-old granddaughter Mia Quinones also helps out.
“They get pumped up,” Ms. Burbank said. “There’s a group the DJ calls ‘our gangstas’ and they all get up there to dance when Paul says, ‘This is for our gangstas.’ They look forward to seeing each other and give high-fives and thumbs-up. We’ve made a group that is like a family. That is a big part of why I like being a part of it. I love to see the kids and their reaction.”
As for Kristen, she said she met the man of her dreams at one of the dances – 25-year-old Michael Henderson of Worcester.
“I met the man of my life that I wanted to dance the night away with,” she said. “When I first met him, wow. I really like him a lot. He is a really nice guy who really touched my heart when I saw him. He always makes me happy and puts a smile on my face, and makes my heart start to pound, and I think we make a good match. I met him at the Eagles Club and asked him out, and my dream came true.”