News Article Details

Walton deputies to help teen celebrate birthday

Northwest Florida Daily News - 3/3/2017

March 02--SANDESTIN -- Planning a 14-year-old's birthday party can be fun, but grandmother Bettye Mendez was worried about one thing.

Who was she going to invite?

Her grandson, Gage Mendez, is a smart and polite young man. He also has Asperger's syndrome, which makes it harder for him to socialize and make friends.

She decided to plan the party anyway, knowing there will be at least two guests: Gage's friends from the Walton County Sheriff's Office, deputies Caleb Davidson and Jeremy Fisher

It was purely for educational purposes that Bettye decided to take her grandson to DeFuniak Springs and meet deputies at the Walton County Sheriff's Office in the fall of 2015.

"I didn't want him to be afraid of policemen," she said. "They took him around and even gave him a ride in the police car for ice cream."

From there, Gage and the deputies started an unlikely friendship. When Davidson heard that Gage wasn't going to trick or treat that year, he insisted they go together. Gage dressed up as a deputy, Davidson wore black and white stripes and they went around Destin Commons.

"He wasn't on duty ... I thought that was really sweet," Bettye said. "He's kept up with us ever since."

Asperger's syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder that affects one's ability to communicate and socialize, among other things. Bettye says Gage's brutal honesty often is what isolates him.

For years Gage has had difficulties engaging with kids his own age. He spends half of his time in Dothan, Alabama, with his parents and the other half with his grandparents, who live in Sandestin.

Bettye tirelessly tries to think of things to do with her grandson. He likes going to Autism Surfs events on Navarre Beach, but when she signed him up for a local theater group it didn't go so well. When he was turning 10, his grandma arranged a bowling party and invited all the students in his class. But no one came.

"Gage waited by the door for people and finally someone came. ... It was one of the teacher's kids," she said. "He knows he's different. He doesn't want to stand out ... but kids feel that difference and they can be very cruel. Now, he has a service dog and the kids like him better."

What Gage really enjoys is playing video games. When he visits Sandestin he likes going to The Blast Arcade and Laser Maze, where he's a regular. Bettye recalls an instance when Gage went to cash in his 100,000 points. The owner, Todd Whitney, didn't have any prizes he deemed worthy and ended up getting Gage an iPad.

Bettye wants her grandson to have some semblance of a normal teenage life and decided to hold his birthday party at the arcade this Saturday afternoon. Instead of inviting classmates, she decided to invite two people who have come to mean a lot to Gage.

"This is his first birthday party in years," she said. "He's a good kid. He just wants to be loved and accepted."

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(c)2017 Northwest Florida Daily News (Fort Walton Beach, Fla.)

Visit the Northwest Florida Daily News (Fort Walton Beach, Fla.) at www.nwfdailynews.com

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