Many local parks make way each spring for scads of pastel-clad children to spill out over green spaces and sports fields, eager to load their Easter baskets with colorful, candy-filled eggs. Community Easter egg hunts are designed to be inclusive, inviting participation from young children in all corners of a host agency’s service area. Two years ago, a handful of Davidson County, North Carolina, agencies endeavored to cast that net yet further by establishing an annual hunt designed for adults and children with intellectual disabilities. Today, the two-year-old collaboration among the Davidson County Parks and Recreation Department (DCPRD), Davidson County Autism Society (DCAS) and the Arc Davidson County has made a major impact in the lives of special-needs residents, their guardians and the community at large.
Annette Horsley has served as DCAS co-leader for the past three years, acting as an expert and ally for people with autism and other intellectual disabilities in her community. Horsley’s 37-year-old son lives with Asperger’s syndrome, and her two grandsons also have been diagnosed as being in the autism spectrum. It’s safe to say she’s dedicated most of her life to understanding, supporting and championing adults and children who have been identified as having special needs. She’s developed programs through DCAS designed to educate her neighbors about people with intellectual disabilities and served as a mentor for guardians who may find themselves overwhelmed by the demands of caring for someone with special needs. “[My husband and I are] able to say, ‘We’ve lived through this; we know what it’s like to lie awake at night and worry about what my child will be able to do when he grows up.’”
Horsley used to organize a DCAS Easter egg hunt on her own, but the event site at a church on the outskirts of town left much to be desired. “It wasn’t conducive for special-needs children,” Horsley says. It occurred to her to capitalize on the support shown by DCPRD Recreation Activities Program Manager Mary Ann Brown, whom Horsley knew as a strong advocate of DCAS’ work in the community. Brown took pains to make sure DCPRD’s program materials, Facebook page and bulletin boards included information about camps, classes and similar opportunities offered by DCAS, ARC, the Workshop of Davidson and other groups that support individuals with special needs. When Horsley asked, Brown immediately offered space at her facility to host the Easter egg hunt. “Mary Ann said, ‘[DCPRD has] this beautiful building — you’re welcome to use it,” Horsley says. “I said, wonderful! We couldn’t have done this without Mary Ann — she’s a pro.”
The 2013 hunt saw almost 100 participants. “We had a gorgeous day last year, and this year we were expecting even more people, but the weather wasn’t our friend that day,” Brown says. Although the April 19 event was forced indoors, approximately 50 people still turned out to search the hallways, potted plants, nooks and crannies of the DCPRD facility for prize- and candy-filled eggs. “We had one room set up to play games, music with a DJ…. Out in the halls, we set up different stations where they could hula hoop, have their faces painted or get temporary tattoos, and an art table for drawing with crayons, pencils and markers,” Brown says. “Those people who came had big smiles on their faces — they had a wonderful time and left with baskets full of eggs. It was worth all the time spent preparing for it.”
She and Horsley plan to tweak a few things for 2015. “We’ll have a rain date built in,” Horsley says, laughing. “But [this year], it still went beautifully and we’ve gotten a lot of great feedback. There are just not a lot of venues where [special-needs] children can go and be the ‘typical’ child. It’s nice for us all to be in a big group, and for the parents, grandparents and volunteers to see life doesn’t stop because their child has a disability. It’s good to let the community see that we can laugh, that there is life — they see that if you accept [people with intellectual disabilities] they’ll accept you, too.”
The DCAS/DCPRD/Arc collaboration has not only led to greater volunteerism on the part of area residents pitching in to help with the egg hunt, it’s also saved money and resources for all the groups involved. “[Our agencies are] not competing with each other, so we feel like we fulfill more needs,” Horsley says. “We maximize our volunteers and dollars to help the community. We’re pooling our resources in a very good way. If we all work together, we can provide a better quality of life for our children with disabilities.”
DCPRD already offers special programming and camps for adults and children with intellectual disabilities, but as Brown and her staff work more closely with DCAS, Arc and others, those activities will be enhanced and expanded. “Anytime you bring in other agencies, you get the benefit of their expertise and knowledge,” Brown says.
And that doesn’t just go for DCPRD and its programming needs — Horsley believes the more that “typical” people play, learn and interact with their special-needs neighbors, the more we’ll all find in common. “I find that the ‘typical’ families are not always so typical,” she says. “We all have something we’re dealing with — [that something] is just a little different for certain folks. We embrace it instead of looking at it like a curse. It’s good to let the community see life can be as beautiful for special-needs children as it is for other children.”
Samantha Bartram is the Associate Editor of Parks & Recreation Magazine.