Chippewa Falls Dad Honored for Two-Decade Dedication to Special Needs Kids

Tom Giffey, photos by Joel Pearish

Tom Leuck
Tom Leuck

For more than 20 years, Special Kid’s Day has brightened the lives of hundreds of Chippewa Valley children with special needs by creating events that have a simple but vital purpose: bringing kids joy. The man behind thousands of special smiles is Tom Leuck, a Chippewa Falls father whose idea began with a single pizza party.

Back in 1998, Tom’s son – who had been diagnosed with autism – was enrolled in special needs classes at Southview Elementary School in Chippewa Falls. As a treat for the children in his son’s class, Tom and his wife, Robin, decided to sponsor a pizza party. They made arrangements, hired a clown, and the children were bused to a buffet restaurant. “I was totally ignorant of special needs. I didn’t have a clue,” Tom reflected recently. “I never paid attention to it in my life. … Even today I struggle with definitions.”

 “Early on, I used to stop by all the classes to make sure everybody was going to participate. It was like Santa Claus showing up with a bag full of toys.” – Tom Leuck,  founder of Special Kid’s Day

After the class unloaded at the restaurant, Tom noticed two children in wheelchairs remained on the bus, and he boarded to ask why they weren’t coming. He was told the children were tube-fed and couldn’t eat pizza, so they were being taken back to school.

“I tell you, it hit me like a ton of bricks and it still affects me to this day,” Tom said of the realization that some of the children couldn’t join in their classmates’ fun. “I can tell that story … and all of a sudden I’ll stop, and I’ve got to recompose myself a little bit.”

That day, Tom dedicated himself to creating a more inclusive program that would serve a larger number of children with all kinds of special needs. Never again would some kids be left behind: All children, regardless of their challenges in life, deserved a day where they were made to feel special. With the help of a teacher and volunteers, Special Kid’s Day was born in 1999.

What started with a handful of classes has grown into a nonprofit organization that serves hundreds of children from numerous school districts across west-central Wisconsin. Each spring – this year, the date was May 10 – the children and their chaperones gather at the Northern Wisconsin State Fair Grounds in Chippewa Falls for a day of food, fun, and dancing. While kids with special needs may feel marginalized at other events, at Special Kid’s Day they are the centers of attention. They’re the ones dancing to their hearts’ content to the songs that they requested. They’re they ones winning awards for their dancing, the ones making friends with children from other schools.

Over the years, the Special Kid’s Day program has expanded to include a similar event, the Pumpkin Dance, each October. Kids typically come in their Halloween attire and compete to see who create the best costumes for oversized PVC skeletons. This party is especially important for students in middle and high schools, who often lack social outlets like this one at Halloween, Tom said. Special Kid’s Day also assists children with disabilities in other ways, including helping them rent tuxedos during prom season and giving out small grants for classroom activities.

For Tom, the best reward comes from bringing a joy to children with disabilities. “Early on, I used to stop by all the classes to make sure everybody was going to participate,” he explained. For kids who had taken part in Special Kid’s Day before, the response was immediate: “It was like Santa Claus showing up with a bag full of toys,” Tom recalled happily.

Are you interested in helping out with Special Kid’s Day or learning more about its programs? Visit www.skdinc.org or email tom@skdinc.org.