This pandemic has messed with everything, from wedding plans to the education of children with special needs. But a grass-roots contest provides a happy story on both those fronts.
In June, a call went out on Instagram seeking "heroes" whose 2020 wedding plans were canceled because of COVID-19 as Laura Reitsma, owner of a wedding and event planning company called Fierce Productions, hatched a plan to give away a wedding package to a worthy couple.
The winning nomination came from Downers Grove's Kristin Flood, owner of Rebellious Beauty in Oak Brook, and her partners, Lauren Steinkuehler and Eliora Jares, who run We Only Do Pretty, a hair and makeup service for weddings, photo shoots and other events. They nominated Salena Schon, the therapist responsible for improvements in Steinkuehler's 4-year-old son, Grayson, who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
"Improvement is an understatement," says Steinkuehler, whose son had been attending a therapeutic day school. "With COVID in March, schools were closed."
Schon, 31, a therapist at the school trained in applied behavior analysis, volunteered to go to the Steinkuehlers' home in Chicago "because I couldn't stand seeing the little guy regress," she says.
"The difference is he communicates better. He had maybe 10 words at the beginning. Now he has over 30," Steinkuehler says. "He listens to you. He's able to say his colors. He counts. To watch it has been unbelievable."
Grayson's rapid improvements have made life brighter for Steinkuehler, her husband, Rob, and their 5-year-old daughter, Mattie. For Schon, too.
"Just yesterday, he spoke a five-word sentence," Schon says of Grayson.
"As a mom, you worry that he'll live with you all his life, you worry about all kinds of -- I'm going to cry," says Steinkuehler, who takes time to wipe tears from her eyes. "And Salena has changed that."
But the pandemic also caused strife for Schon, whose Aug. 8 wedding to longtime fiancee Jess Bequette, 27, fell victim to the COVID-19 restrictions.
"We waited to send out invitations and we ended up not," Schon says, thanking everyone involved for this past weekend's wedding celebration. "Coming from the community of LGBTQ, before 2015, we didn't even think we could have this. I'm just so incredibly thankful."
Reitsma says she and the others who voted for the winner among 10 nominees were moved by Schon's story.
"Just learning about Lauren's son, the disability and the power of therapy. On top of it, that they had plans to have a wedding that did not happen," Reitsma says. "It all felt like the universe was telling me to vote for them."
On Saturday night, Schon and Bequette were treated to a "mini wedding" curated by Fierce Productions at the Wicker Park Inn, with flowers from Leelee's Garden, photos from Golden Hours Photography, video from Matthew Robert Creative, livestreaming and DJ from Cage and Aquarium, hair and makeup by We Only Do Pretty, catering by The Caterist, breakfast in bed the day after by Heartfelt Catering, and a wedding cake by ECBG Cake Studio.
The couple's planned honeymoon in Greece isn't possible because of the pandemic. But that's OK with the happy couple, and Grayson, says Schon, who went back to work Monday. "I can't go a week without seeing him."