Journey to ‘Disneyland’ Helps Orem Man Navigate Life During Pandemic

Oct 9, 2020, 5:20 PM | Updated: 9:03 pm

OREM, Utah – The coronavirus pandemic has posed unique challenges for everyone, but especially for one Orem man with Down syndrome, whose routine was flipped upside down. With one goal in mind, a little exercise and some Disney magic, things started to look up.

From the outside, it may look like 21-year-old Kai Papenfuss and his mom, Junko, enjoy walking the streets of their Orem neighborhood, but they’re actually on a much bigger journey.

Kai was born with Down syndrome.

“He’s a happy guy,” Junko said. “He always smiles to people.”

Kai had a reputation for always being kind to people, showering friends and teachers with hugs in the hallways, and was nominated to be prom king at Timpanogos High School.

After Kai’s high school graduation in 2018, Junko noticed a change in his normally happy behavior. Many of his friends left for college, church missions or got married. She said he felt discouraged he wasn’t doing the same things.

Kai started attending a special education school after high school for job training and to develop life skills. Junko said it helped, but only for so long.

“He started kind of showing depression symptoms,” Junko said.

She said he lost interest in some of his favorite activities. He no longer played the piano. He stayed home from social functions and had a hard time getting out of bed.

When COVID-19 hit, things only got worse. Kai’s school was temporarily shut down and he couldn’t do some of his favorite things.

“He loves going to see a movie. He loves going shopping with me, but — nothing,” she said.

Junko decided they needed to get out of the house, and if they couldn’t go anywhere, at least go somewhere.

“So I told a Kai, ‘Do you want to go to Disneyland?” Junko asked. “He said, ‘Oh, yeah!'”

They set a goal to walk to “Disneyland” — not to California, that is, but the distance to the Happiest Place on Earth.

“That is 647 miles!” Junko said.

They made a big poster with a map and pictures of Disney characters to remind them of their goal.

The whole neighborhood grew interested in their new endeavor. They started leaving him encouraging rocks painted with Disney characters along his daily walk and cheering for him from their windowsills.

Kai’s Parade-92: To celebrate, Kai Papenfuss's neighbors dressed up as Disney characters, paraded through the neighborhood, and welcomed him across the finish line to Disney's iconic castle in his own front driveway. (Credit: Ai Sonomura Photography) Papenfuss' neighbors quickly became interested in his new endeavor, leaving him encouraging rocks painted with Disney characters. (Credit: Junko Papenfuss)  Kai Papenfuss wore his king crown as he walked with his sister, Kyrie, in the neighborhood Disney themed parade. (Ai Sonomura Photography) Kai Papenfuss and his mom created a poster documenting their journey to Disneyland. (KSL-TV) Kai and Junko Papenfuss hold their posters to Disneyland and Disneyworld. (KSL-TV) Kai Papenfuss and his mom, Junko, set a goal to walk the distance to Disneyland, a total of 647 miles. (KSL TV) Kai Papenfuss wore his king crown as he walked with his sister, Kyrie, in the neighborhood Disney themed parade.(Ai Sonomura Photography)

“Every day somebody said, ‘Where are you guys?” Junko said she would tell them, “We just passed Fillmore, Utah, we’re in St. George, we are in Nevada now.”

It seemed to help.

“That was a big help for him. He was looking for something,” she added.

Intermountain Healthcare’s Julie Roberts, a nurse practitioner at the Salt Lake LiVe Well clinic, said setting a goal is sometimes all it takes.

“It gives a lot of sense of personal accomplishment,” she explained.

She said tracking daily progress is vital for success.

“Something that can prompt you to stay consistent is key,” she said.

Every day, Kai recorded how many miles he had walked on his poster. Junko said her son loved it when people notice what he’s doing and applaud his success.

“We started walking a little bit longer – a little bit longer – every day,” Junko said.

Some days they walked up to 6 miles.

Junko said Kai lost some weight and became more physically fit during the process, but even more importantly, his mental health improved.

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Journey to ‘Disneyland’ Helps Orem Man Navigate Life During Pandemic