FestABILITY provides connections for families with special needs children

Success can’t always be measured in numbers, sometimes it’s determined by smiles.

That was the case recently for the inaugural FestABILITY, an event created by a Leadership Jackson County team to connect families with special needs children to resources available for them in the community.

Held April 27 at the Boys and Girls Club of Seymour, the event attracted around 30 families that were interested in learning more about topics such as housing, vocational support, social and leisure opportunities, medical and mental health services, finances, advocacy, legal aid and other resources families may be eligible for when raising a child with special needs.

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While parents visited nearly 20 different vendor booths asking questions and receiving information, children had the opportunity to play and take part in supervised activities.

Children were paired with a volunteer who interacted with them and made sure they were safe and having fun.

Elina Aguillar, 5, was all smiles while getting a rainbow painted on her face, playing a game of Connect 4, meeting Firepup and even petting a miniature therapy horse named Flash.

Although Elena doesn’t have an official diagnosis and is awaiting testing, Amber Coomer said her daughter has difficulties with comprehension.

Coomer said FestABILITY was helpful and served as a way to network with other parents. She learned about a home care program for kids and was able to pick up other information that may prove to be helpful to her family in the future, she said.

What made the event nice was Coomer didn’t have to worry about watching her kids while she talked with different vendors.

Coomer said she likes to take Elina and her son Oliver Garcia, 1, to different events so they are involved in the community.

Rachel Cummings of Brownstown attended FestABILITY to learn more about what her family could do to help and support her daughter, who has autism and sometimes wanders or runs off.

“It’s a great way to get ideas from experts on ways to help her,” she said of the event. “I knew a lot before, but an event like this makes you realize you’re not alone and there are a lot of resources out there.”

FestABILITY started as an idea from Leadership Jackson County member Debbie Linke who has struggled with knowing what resources were available for her own daughter.

The event was organized in partnership with The Arc of Jackson County.

Melanie O’Neal, executive director of The Arc, said she had hoped for a bigger turnout, but was happy with how the event was organized and the number of volunteers that showed up.

She appreciated all the work that went into planning it.

“Collaboration with our community partners is what made this event possible,” she said. “We are very pleased with the response and support.”

O’Neal said they plan on continuing their outreach through FestABILITY next year.

Jeannie Dickens of Seymour said it was great to have a place to take her daughter, River, 6, to play and interact with other special needs kids. But it also provided her and her husband with important information on what’s available in the community and state to help her daughter.

“We very much appreciated this event and all the resources and information,” she said. “My daughter loved the face painting and activities.”

Leadership Jackson County member Ryon Wheeler, who also serves as executive director of the Boys & Girls Club, said the team was very happy with how the event went.

“The feedback we received was all positive and we hope we have put a great project together through LJC that can be carried on for years to bring awareness and growth to the special needs community,” he said.

He wasn’t surprised by the number of volunteers who wanted to help out or the organizations that wanted to participate.

“The outpouring of support was incredible but nothing we didn’t expect from this great community that always rallied around a need,” he added.

Team member Vera Reichenbacker said helping organize the event was a great experience.

“I really haven’t had the opportunity to engage with the special needs community,” she said. “It really melted my heart to see so many people come together to serve this portion of our community.”

“The special needs families of Jackson County deserve to have events and resources available such as FestABILITY,” she added. “It was an honor to be able to be a part of it.”

For information about resources or to become a member of The Arc of Jackson County contact Melanie O’Neal at (812) 271-2200 or at [email protected].