Call it a blind man’s vision of love.
Mike Exley, a 64-year-old member of the Spanaway Lions Club, suffers from a rare form of retinitis pigmentosa that has robbed him off all but his peripheral vision. He had a epiphany a few years back while participating with the traditional club Easter egg hunt at Spanaway Lake Park.
“We did the traditional egg hunt and put out the hard-boiled eggs that the lady lions dyed,” Exley said. “I remember watching the kids come, and they would be there and gone in hardly five minutes, with hardly a thank you. I thought about that, and it really bothered me.”
After the 2004 event, Exley asked club members if they would be open to changing the club’s Easter egg hunt to help children with special needs.
“They jumped on board,” said Exley.
The Lions Club moved the hunt to the Prairie House Museum grounds and went from hosting a free-for-all, survival-of-the-fastest egg hunt to a slower-paced hunt for kids with autism, Down syndrome, muscular dystrophy, blindness and other disabilities.
On Saturday, with his vision nearly gone, Exley wasn’t able to help other Lions club members put out the shiny, multicolored eggs in a field behind the Prairie House Museum barn. Lions Club members welcomed about a dozen families and their children with hot chocolate and doughnuts, small gifts and an Easter Bunny to pose for keepsake photos.
It was the first Easter egg hunt for toddler Arianna Graham of Lakewood, who has Down syndrome and pushed a little stroller to propel and stabilize herself. Her parents, Andrea and Mike, positioned her to the side of the starting line so she could go at her own pace.
“Arianna, wait, wait!” said her mom, pulling back her anxious daughter gently twice to the starting line until, finally, a voice called out: “Ready, set, go!”
“I see one. Look right here! What’s that?” Mom said.
“Ohhhh!” Arianna said as she reached down to pick up a green egg from the grass, her first-ever egg-hunt find.
Ian Hagen, 11 of Eatonville, got an assist from sister Genevieve who carried his bag, quickly filling it with candy-filled eggs.
Ian, who has Down syndrome, took a chef’s approach to the eggs he was gathering — cracking every egg first to get out the candy before dropping it into his bag.
“He broke every egg because that’s what he likes to do,” said Genevieve with a smile and a laugh.
Michelle Hagan, Ian’s mom, watched as her son stuck his head into his bag, saying, “Egg, egg,” while assessing the day’s take.
“Did you have fun? I think so,” Michelle Hagan said. “It’s wonderful. I think this is our sixth year. ... It’s something wonderful for him.”
As Exley and other Lions Club members watched, warmed by the sun, they acknowledged another type of warmth.
“It’s been a very rewarding project for us,” Exley said.
“They come back with big smiles. They’re the happiest kids in the whole county,” Exley said. “There are a lot more kids out there in the community that don’t have the simple opportunity to enjoy an Easter egg hunt. We need to find a way to reach them.”