What girl doesn’t love a sleepover with her friends? It’s all about giggling and being silly together. It’s a time for sharing secrets, painting each other’s nails, and munching on cheese curls and chips while watching the latest Disney princess DVD or teen romance.

So it also is for the young women of the ARC of Howard County, the nonprofit that supports people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Twice a month, they gather at the ARC’s respite care house in Columbia for their own version of a sleepover, Ladies’ Night Out. And while the girls are mostly 20-somethings, with a variety of intellectual and physical disabilities, they are, in many ways, typical girls who love to hang out with their friends, away from their parents. They just can’t stay home alone.

It’s a Friday night in Columbia, and the movie “An American Tail” is playing on the TV. Five girls have arrived at the house in Owen Brown. Stacy Warner, Christine Towne, Nicole Dalrymple, Molly Paddock and Doreen Shing sit on the sofas and a rocking chair and chat about their week. Sometimes they see a high school musical together or walk the mall, but mostly they relax in front of the TV, play cards or a board game and eat pizza, with lots of toppings.

Tonight, Doreen, 19, is quiet — tired from being off her usual schedule during spring break — and she doesn’t talk much. Plus, she’s new to the group. The other four have been coming to the sleepover for months, and while they don’t all stay the night, they have a history together. Christine, 23, Molly, 24, and Nicole, 24, participate in Special Olympics, and Christine and Nicole are also in No Boundaries, a musical theater program for adults with special needs. At 35, Stacy is the oldest in the group and isn’t involved in those activities, although she says she likes baseball, basketball and tennis. The Ellicott City resident is quick with a smile and could teach a course in etiquette, so impeccable are her manners. It’s Stacy who usually brings a deck of cards, and the girls play Uno or Crazy Eights.


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“I like meeting everybody and just getting together,” she says.

Of all the girls, it’s Stacy who has changed the most since coming to Ladies’ Night Out. Two years ago she wasn’t really social at all, says Angela Johnson, house coordinator. “She’s a part of them now. She’s made genuine friendships with some of the girls.”

That’s exactly why Johnson started Ladies’ Night Out.

“I just want them to do everything that I got to do. Just because I was born one way and they were born another way doesn’t mean they can’t have that, too. They should be able to hang out with their friends and be happy together,” says Johnson, who is a graduate student at University of Maryland at Baltimore, pursing a degree in social work. She also works with children with autism through the Department of Child Services.

The girls get along and seem patient with each other, even when Nicole occasionally jumps off the sofa and dances across the room singing “I Want to Be Happy,” from “No, No Nanette,” the musical she’s practicing for No Boundaries. Nicole is the most animated, always using her hands when she talks. This evening, she’s talking about a friend who plays the French horn in the U.S. Army band. She invites Molly to come with her to a concert.

While the Disney movie “Tangled” plays in the background, the girls discuss books, family dinners and trips to Disney World. Molly, who loves to wear rings, has one from the theme park. She also wears a ring that belonged to her grandmother and her class ring from Atholton High. Recently her best friend had a baby boy.

“I’m his godmother,” she says.

“I love listening to them,” says Johnson as she cleans up the pizza boxes in the kitchen. “They sound like me and my girlfriends.”

She stops for a second, smiles, then says, “Listen, they’re talking about their hair.”

‘A break for both of us’

While Ladies’ Night Out is great fun for the girls, it’s designed to give the parents a break, too. For May Shing, it’s a welcome one.

A single parent raising twin daughters, Shing has felt the absence of Doreen’s sister, Rochelee, who went away to college last year.

“She needs more supervision now that her twin sister is away,” says the Columbia mom. While Doreen is in school, Shing juggles job searching and managing her house.

“It gives me a little more time to do personal things,” she says about the program. “It’s a break for both of us.”

Doreen was used to spending a lot of time with her sister, reading Harry Potter books and just hanging out together after school. She was in an after-school program for kids with special needs that was run by the Columbia Association but had to withdraw temporarily when Shing lost her job last year. Now she’s on the waiting list. Shing takes her daughter to the library often to use the computers. Doreen loves to do research on the Internet on some of her school subjects. But Shing worries that Doreen is getting bored, so she’s been looking for inexpensive activities for her daughter, like Ladies’ Night Out.

Technically it’s respite care, which normally costs $20 an hour. Through a Community Services Partnership grant from the Howard County government, the ARC is able to set the rate for the program at $3.50 an hour, or $45 total for overnight.

“Without the funding for the program it would be unthinkable for me,” Shing says.

Therese Dalrymple hasn’t had to use respite care for her daughter very often, except for the Ladies’ Night Out program.

“Nicole just loves going,” she says. If it wasn’t subsidized, “we’d really have to re-think how often she could go.”