Monday, February 18, 2008

Couple with Down syndrome win contest, exchange vows

Couple with Down syndrome win contest, exchange vows

(February 18, 2008) - HENRIETTA - Cluster after cluster, relatives swarmed around Eric Neatrour and Christine Kurvits, leaning in for bear hugs and kisses on the cheek.

When it seemed that all of the adults had finished congratulating the couple, the flower girl crept up to Christine's side.

"You are going to be his partner?" asked Eric's 9-year-old niece, Elizabeth.

"Always," Christine replied.

On Sunday, Eric and Christine took the next step in their lives together, pledging their commitment to each other in a ceremony they had won.

As she watched her son read the vows he had written for Christine, Beverly Neatrour was overcome with joy.

"It just struck me that their love for each other is so innocent, that it's so genuine," she said.

Eric, 29, of Pittsford, and Christine, 24, of Victor, were born with Down syndrome.

"I never really thought this would be possible for her," said Jaak Kurvits, Christine's father, as he looked at his daughter in her white gown and thin silver crown, sitting next to the man she habitually talks about at home.

"It's Eric this, it's Eric that," said Kurvits, smiling. "It's constant."

The couple met three years ago when Christine enrolled in a program for people with disabilities at Cobblestone Arts Center, a nonprofit organization in Farmington, Ontario County. Eric said he was instantly taken by his new classmate.

"When I saw her face, I fell in love," Eric wrote in his essay to the Nuptial Network of Rochester, the group of wedding planners that awarded the ceremony at the RIT Inn and Conference Center.

The couple became friends, dancing together in their performing arts classes at Cobblestone.

Friendship soon became something more. Christine didn't want to have any other dancing partner.

"I had to keep saying, 'This is not a dating service. We have classes to go to,'" said Lorene Benson, executive director of Cobblestone Arts Center. But, Benson said, Eric and Christine are great students. They not only take care of each other but also watch out for classmates.

The pair began spending time with each other outside of class, at night and on the weekends. They would monopolize the Neatrour family living room with their board games. They would cuddle on the couch and watch American Idol and Dancing with the Stars. They would go out to dinner at Applebee's with Eric's older brother, Paul.

Then, last spring while sitting at home, Eric saw a flier from the Center for Disability Rights advertising a fundraiser being organized by the Nuptial Network of Rochester. The group was also advertising a $25,000 wedding giveaway to a couple with the best love story.

Eric asked his mother if he could enter. Why not, she said.

In June, she received a phone call from Sue Kurvits, Christine's mother. Eric had asked Jaak Kurvits for his daughter's hand in marriage. In September, Jaak received a phone call from the Nuptial Network, telling him that the group had chosen Eric and Christine over 25 other couples.

The two families decided that for now, a commitment ceremony would be more appropriate than a wedding.

And for now, Eric and Christine will each continue to live with their parents. They hope that maybe in a year or two they will be able find an apartment of their own, a place where they can be independent but also receive assistance when they need it.

Sarah Schleider, vice president of marketing and communications for the New York City-based National Down Syndrome Society, said that in each of the past few years, her organization has heard about two or three couples with Down syndrome who get married.

"It is becoming more common because individuals are living longer, living more fulfilling lives and living more independently," Schleider said.

After Sunday's ceremony ended and the guests had piled into the dining room, Eric and Christine took their place as they waited to be announced to the crowd.

Eric turned to Christine, took her hand and whispered.

"I want people to know that I won this contest for you," he said.

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