• Earthstock Brings the Joy to the Crystal Ballroom

     Two students dance at Earthstock 2024.

    A little over 30 years ago, a Madison High School student named Joseph Janson had a simple wish. He wanted to go to a dance. But nothing was simple for Joseph, who was born with Duchenne's Muscular Dystrophy and was confined to a wheelchair. 

    He confided his wish to Tony Nitz, who at that time was an educational assistant at Madison (now Leodis V. McDaniel High School). Tony had been working one-on-one with Joseph for months and he immediately went about making the young man’s dream come true.

    “The truth is, I would have done anything for Joseph,” Nitz said. “He was a unique person, and we had a very special bond.”

    So Tony found a venue for the dance – the old Washington High School gym – and invited special education students from all over Portland Public Schools for a day of dancing and fun. Since outings and occasions for special education students often revolved around holidays, he decided to have the event on Earth Day and call it “Earthstock.”

    He also had an idea that he hoped would make Earthstock meaningful for the entire high school. In addition to working with SpED students like Joseph, Nitz served as Madison’s attendance clerk, which put him in charge of collecting attendance data. This was before computerized attendance, so he had a lot of help from student workers, who, he said, were wonderful kids – ambitious, smart, down-to-earth, and kind.

    “I had the idea to recruit them to help with Earthstock, and they came to the first dance and met a lot of the SpED kids, too. The result was that the day after the dance and then for weeks afterward a lot of my student helpers went out of their way to greet SpEd students in the halls. They’d bonded, and that led to this warm atmosphere, to students who might not otherwise have interacted becoming friends. It was a great thing to see.”

    About 60 students showed up to the first Earthstock to dance the day away. Joseph was right there in the thick of it, having the time of his life.

    “If it was always just those 60 kids, I would have considered it a success,” Nitz said, “but as is the case with things that are good, people stepped in to help and all of a sudden, we had new connections and new opportunities.”

    One of those connections was the event’s partnership with Impact NW, which gave Earthstock its nonprofit status, boosting its public profile and its fundraising potential. Another was with the good people of McMenamins’ Crystal Ballroom, which has been hosting Earthstock since 1998. The change gave the event more glamor and allowed for more students to attend. This year, more than 400 kids like Joseph showed up to boogie down.

    McDaniel High School ninth grader Melvin Ngo was one of those students. His review of the night? “10 out of 10!”

    His classmate, tenth grader Jay Chan, agreed. “There was a ballroom! And there was dancing!”

    Friends Alyssa Gilmore and Samantha Lent-Stader, also sophomores at McDaniel, described Earthstock as a “cross between a dance and a trampoline park.”

    “The dance floor [at the Crystal Ballroom] is really bouncy,” Lent-Stader said. “When everyone was jumping at once, you could see the windows shaking.”

    “It was really, really fun,” Gilmore said.

    Joseph Janson died at the age of 21, but he lives on in the smiles of the students who come to Earthstock every year to dance and laugh and look simply fabulous doing it. That’s Joseph’s legacy, and Tony Nitz’s, too.

    “You just have to go once, and you will see it, the joy, the pure joy,” Nitz said. “I’m a big movie buff and there’s this movie called Robots. It’s an animated movie with Robin Williams and there’s a line I really connect to. This big lovable character’s catchphrase is, ‘find a need, fill a need.’ Those are words to live by, as far as I’m concerned, and that’s what Earthstock is. There was a need and we filled it.”