Hollyann Davis’ daughters found friends, entertainment and encouragement in downtown Kilgore Saturday: “They felt safe.”
A counselor and coordinator of disability services for Kilgore College, Davis has three children, all with special needs. Two, 13 years-old and 16, experienced Kilgore’s Special Abilities Family Fun Event Day for the first time over the week.
“I thought it was really awesome,” she said. “I think it’s a really neat thing to do. We’ve lived all over, and we’ve never had anything like this.
Joining hundreds of SAFFE Day’s other ‘Everyday Heroes’ (children and adults with special needs) alongside volunteers and well-wishers on Commerce Street, “The biggest thing is they did feel safe and comfortable in their surroundings. A lot of kids with autism, they usually don’t.”
Saturday’s carnival-like atmosphere was bigger, better than ever, Kilgore Fire Chief Johnny Bellows said.
“We had more dedicated people that were there, a greater response from the public and community as far as volunteering and helping out,” he added, with a steady flow of children and adults throughout the five-hour event. It was SAFFE Day’s sixth year: “Our response overall, from everyone that has contacted me, they keep saying how much better it is and how much it’s improved.”
While the volunteers’ Everyday Heroes took in the free activities – games, entertainment, food, treats, giveaways, rides, fire safety challenges and more – Bellows reveled in the chance to watch SAFFE Day’s guests dive into the happy hubbub.
“As every year, it’s a very humbling and touching experience where you really learn what life is all about,” he said. “We don’t need to be concerned about the little things that are happening every day that we tend to make into big things.
“We learn from our people with special needs, our Everyday Heroes that are in attendance, how properly we should act and how we should treat each other. We learn life’s valuable lessons out of SAFFE Day.”
Ron Lucey, executive director of the Texas Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities, flew in from Austin for the celebration.
People with disabilities want for themselves the same things other people want, Lucey said: equal access to goods and services, equal opportunities. Saturday’s guests – young and old – found the same in downtown Kilgore.
“I think SAFFE Day is a good place to start to springboard other initiatives for citizens with disabilities,” Lucey said. He used the event as a networking opportunity, visiting with the East Texas Center for Independent Living, for example, and POWER Inc. to discuss new initiatives beyond SAFFE Day. “Kilgore seems like a little town that puts on events that you don’t typically see in cities that are four or five times the size of Kilgore.
“It’s a great sense of community. I like how everybody comes together. I think it’s a nice partnership to have public safety working with people with disabilities.”
For 2017, SAFFE Day’s two special needs ambassadors were Kyle Plunk and Audrey Endicott, and the pair helped jump-start the event with a ribbon cutting following annual opening parade.
Judy Jackson, Endicott’s grandmother, is a former pediatric nurse – she prizes the opportunity SAFFE Day provides for children with special needs, and their families, to enjoy a day out, care-free.
“They’re my heart,” she said. “They look so forward to this: a family outing and something they can all enjoy, that the kids can enjoy and feel that they are special, that it’s their day.”
Davis and her daughters are looking forward to the next; SAFFE Day No. 7 is set Sept. 15, 2018.
In another environment – a typical fair, for example – the girls and their peers might feel overwhelmed. Davis would worry about letting her daughters roam. At SAFFE Day, though, the event was custom-made for their special needs and others.
From tackling an obstacle course to using a firehouse to put out faux flames, “If they didn’t do it just right, people were still proud of them,” she said. “There wasn’t anything they tried that they could not do. They enjoyed being able to do things that normally, at different places, they wouldn’t be successful at doing.”
“I think it’s a really good experience for kids who have special needs to go out and do things, to do it for themselves.”