Dream Night 2014



Photo by Karin

The magic started when we met Hooligan, before we even entered the zoo. Hooligan, a Providence police horse, who was kind, patient, and gentle enough to meet Liam on our way into Dream Night at the Roger Williams Park Zoo this year. That’s the way things are at Dream Night, from the zoo staff walking around with snakes and lizards, to the docents volunteering in costume, the Hasbro Children’s Hospital employees checking families in, the face painters, jugglers, musicians and temporary tattoo artists, even the police officer on horseback at the zoo’s entrance, it is everyone’s mission to ensure that these kids with special needs, their families and even their carers have an even more special night.



Photo by Karin

No exaggeration, Dream Night is our favorite event of the entire year, and after being rained out last year we have been looking forward to tonight for a long, long time.




Dream Night  began at Rotterdam Zoo in 1996 and is now celebrated in over 170 zoos worldwide on the first Friday in June. In fact Roger Williams Park Zoo was one of the first zoos in the country to have a Dream Night, and it shows. Their dedication to this event rings true in the exceptional attention to helping each and every family have as much fun as they can possibly provide. 20140606-213334-77614438.jpg


Trachs and vents, wheelchairs and walkers, extra chromosomes or chromosomes missing a piece, from CP to Spina Bifida and any other neurological disorder, none of us feel out-of-place or different at Dream Night. The only night of the year that we can say that. At Dream Night more than any other night, we all feel a little more normal. Absent are the stares and frightened looks we’ve all grown so accustomed to. Instead there’s an understanding of our struggles, and a night to forget them. An opportunity to relax in a public space knowing that every other family there in some small way knows exactly why this night is so special.


So freeing.


So much  fun.





This year we even toured the veterinary hospital in the zoo. Not lost on us was the fact that so many of our families there tonight have more than a passing knowledge of hospitals so being allowed to walk around their hospital may have been my favorite part. Ultrasounds, x-rays, and endoscopy machines exactly as we have seen them used on our own children right down to the end tidal CO2 monitor. It was surprisingly fun to see just how similar the hospital facilities at a zoo are to the hospital Liam has spent so much of his life in, which I think is exactly why they open up the veterinary hospital for this event.






There were snakes named Chuck (pictured above) and Elvis, a miniature donkey named Willy, and a Gecko whose name escapes me. The giraffes and elephants were happy to enjoy their nighttime feeding in front of a crowd even though they normally eat in peace after the zoo is closed. There were no lines to wait in and not once did it feel as if Liam’s wheelchair was in anyone’s way. Even if it was. No one would have said so. We exchanged hello and knowing looks with families we’ve never met but who probably understand our life better than many of our own friends.

That is the magic of Dream Night.




Photo by Karin — It’s the simple attractions like these types of photo setups that we never really get a chance to get near on a normal zoo day. It takes time and effort to get a wheelchair setup back there. One of the thousands of reasons why Dream Night means so much to us.

Only 364 more days until we can relive that magic again.


Thank you, thank you, thank you to the wonderful people who made this night possible. The CNDC at Rhode Island Hospital, Hasbro Children’s Hospital, and all of the Roger Williams Park Zoo staff and docents. Your effort and enthusiasm are noticed and appreciated and while the Olson family will probably see you again over the summer, we already can’t wait for this time next year.


Editor’s Note: I was much more wordy in 2012 for Dream Night and I brought my real camera instead of just using my phone. This year I decided to not worry about pictures so much and just worry about having a great time with my boy and boy did I.


Playing Hookie


We didn’t even tell him. Got him dressed and packed into his wheelchair. We even left the house at the same time that he does every day for school, but Liam didn’t go to school yesterday. I had the day off of work, and the weather was right.

Yesterday, we all went to the zoo.


We’ve of course been to the zoo before but we were excited to go during school hours in the hopes that the zoo would be fairly quiet. It was, but not nearly as empty as we expected. Still, we were able to enjoy every exhibit at our own pace and didn’t have to battle through other groups to get Liam right up close, with only a minimal amount of the uncomfortable stares (sadly enough, they’re usually from the other parents more than the children).

There was one animal though, that I was more excited to show Liam up close and personal for the first time than any other, and I knew that no matter the feeding schedule or the weather, this animal would be available for Liam to meet.


If you grew up in Rhode Island, chances are there is a picture somewhere in your parent’s old photo albums of you proudly astride the dog in front of the gift shop at the Roger Williams Park Zoo. I know for a fact that there are pictures of me on this thing along with my siblings and cousins. When we decided on letting Liam play hookie to head to the zoo getting to take this photograph was the first thing on my mind.


Having the time to unhook Liam’s ventilator, feeding pump and oximeter, safely lift him onto the dog’s back and then have the picture taken? Well, that right there was more a more meaningful experience in Liam’s life than one more afternoon in a classroom could possibly bring, and I don’t care what his report card says about it.

DreamNight at the Zoo 2012

Every year on the first Friday night in June, 170 zoos around the world open their gates to families of children with special needs, chronic illnesses, and other developmental conditions for DreamNight at the Zoo. Beginning in 1996 at Rotterdam Zoo in the Netherlands, our local zoo, Roger Williams Park Zoo, was one of the first American zoos to participate starting in 2004. Last night was our third DreamNight at Roger Williams Zoo and it was every bit as wonderful as the first two we were lucky enough to attend. Karin and I have always loved zoos and so this event holds a very special place in our hearts. Since I’ve been posting about my photography lately this year I decided to bring my big camera and put together a bit of a photo essay of this year’s event. It is crazy long and may take a little while to load, I probably should break it up into pieces but knowing me I’d never get around to writing or posting a part II so I’ll just throw it all at you at once. Hope you enjoy.

The beauty of DreamNight at the Zoo lies not in all the extra zoo keepers on hand, walking around with animals to show off like snakes …

And lizards…

and penguins . . .

And even chickens . . .

Nor is it found in the other entertainments of the evening, throughout the zoo and between animal exhibits are craft tables and the big head mascots from the local major league soccer, minor league hockey and baseball teams, the state university mascot and all sorts of other entertainment.

Like this kid with his magic bubbles…

and jugglers . .

and Musicians . . .

And even tattoo artists. . .

Of course, his Mother refused to sign the consent form because of Liam’s “sensitive skin” so we went with a temporary tattoo instead of the real thing. This time.

Since it takes place in the early evening we are even able to see more of the feeding routine with many of the animals which gives a unique opportunity to see the animals behave and interact with their keepers.  It’s exciting and the animals seem to enjoy it as well…

Of course not every animal is impressed with dusk. Like this red-tailed panda. . .

Access to fun moments like that are made even more fun since the event is private and the crowd is so much smaller than normal zoo hours. But it isn’t even the crowd size that makes DreamNight so special.

The true beauty and meaning found at DreamNight is the knowing sense of community that every family in attendance has. The knowing how lucky we are to have a night like this. A night at the zoo without some of the worrying.

Individual families with individual worries, yet we all understand the need for a level of patience, courtesy, and acceptance that can unfortunately be hard to find in the gen-pop of normalcy*.

So no need to worry about things like the stares, or taking up too much room with Liam’s chair, we may all be on different journey’s but we’re all in the same boat here on DreamNight.

No one here worries about vents, trachs or feeding pumps. We have more fun things to worry about at DreamNight than silly things like tubes and such.

No one here worries about shouts, screams, or grunts. The quiet of a kid who could nap even in a crowd, all the way to the cries and shrieks of a sensory sensitive tantrum (guess which one Liam was) seem more normal at dreamnight than the whines of the normal kids for ice cream or a toy in the gift shop.

It’s nice to feel normal for a night.

To be just one of the gang.

That’s the beauty of DreamNight and I already can’t wait for next year.

Talk to you later.

*Note: I was in a band in high school and we called ourselves Return to Normalcy a phrase coined by then candid for President Warren G Harding. Given the word “normal” has all sorts of new connotations for me now I think I’m going to start dropping normalcy out there more often.

I’m supposed to be writing a speech

I’m supposed to be writing a speech.  I was recently asked by a commitee in the NICU where Liam was a patient to give a speech and answer some questions in order to help educate new NICU staff so they are able to appreciate the contribution that they make to families. Also to give the father’s perspective which is sometimes a little lost in a hospital named Women & Infants, but in a long term NICU stay the fathers are also effected and need support. In two days I’ll meet with a bunch of staff to give them the parents side of time spent in the hospital.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever mentioned that in real life I’m a food & nutrition manager in said hospital. It’s a situation that can at times be rewarding in that it keeps me close enough to help families effected by complex medical needs yet can also be suffocating in that I can never really escape the role of NICU dad. Running the cafeteria kept me fairly anonymous in the hospital — being the father to Liam did not.

But all of that is another post for another day.  I don’t have time to get into that right now.

I’m supposed to be writing a speech.

So I guess I don’t have time to blog about our trip on Friday to Dream Night at Roger Williams Park Zoo. A wonderful program at zoos around the world, Dream Night brings children with special needs, their families and their caregivers together for a private night at the zoo that is more intimate and interactive than any zoo experience I’ve ever seen.

With the height of Liam’s wheelchair and his compromised vision, the zoo on a normal day can be a difficult place to engage Liam. He’s not really going to notice the zebra or elephant 30 yards off in the distance. But at Dream Night, which is held at a time when the zoo is normally closing and with a limited attendance, Liam can be set up to see feedings of those big animals that are usually difficult to get close to. All of the photos in this post were taken with my cell phone just to give you an idea of how close we were allowed to get to some of these animals.
Last year we attended Dream Night but if I recall Liam slept through most of it and we saw little if any recognition when he was awake that he had any grasp of what was going on. This year though Liam stayed awake and alert and got only slightly fussy when his father kept inadvertantly turning the stroller and lifting its visor to nearly blind him with the light of the setting sun.


On Dream Night Liam was able to roll right up to zookeepers on hand with hedgehogs, owls, snakes and other creatures out of their cages and calm enough to be touched.

If I had time to blog tonight I would tell you about the south american porcupine that came really close to crawling right onto Liam’s lap before its keeper came in to stop her.

But I don’t have time tonight because I’m supposed to be writing a speech.


So since I’m writing a speech tonight I also don’t have time to tell you how amazingly well our Liam the Lion Fund Kickoff Spaghetti Dinner and Silent Auction (just kind of rolls off the tongue doesn’t it?) went yesterday. The turnout was incredible and everyone who attended showed us so much generousity and support that Liam will be riding safely around town in his wheelchair accesible van in no time.

I wish I had more time for blogging amongst all the speech writing that’s going on around here because I would use this space to thank the people who gave so much of their time and effort to make it such a success like my mom and dad and Karin’s mom and dad who were there to help set-up the event room and auction. My Aunt Donna, Aunt Carol, Brian, My Nan, and sister’s friend (and newest member of Team Liam) Beth for all of their help being waiters, waitresses, cooks, and dishwashers during dinner.  To all of the people who donated items to be auctioned off and to each and every person who attended an auction on a beautiful sunday afternoon solely to help my family.

And if I dont have time to blog about thanking them then I certainly don’t have enough time to blog about Liam’s Auntie Sandra (my little sis), without whom this event never would have happened. While Karin and I have thought about and talked about having a kickoff event for months and months we’ve usually got our hands pretty full around here. It was Auntie Sandra who came through with the to-do lists and the spreadsheets. She kept us on track with twice weekly meetings and did most of the legwork procuring items for auctioning and producing the ticketing paperwork. We can’t thank you enough Sandra. Are you any good at writing speeches?


So I’ll sign-off here. I’m sorry that there’s no real blog post tonight. There’s only so many hours in the day and as I’ve said….

I’m supposed to be writing a speech right now.