Festival caters to kids with special needs

Published: Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 10:28 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 10:28 p.m.

Audrey Harty was the star of the spring festival for children with special needs held at Lincoln Middle School on Saturday morning.

The 8-year-old with a bright smile and beautiful red hair autographed books in which she’s the heroine. Entitled “Tessee and Amos Wonder: How Do Things Fall?” the book’s cover features Audrey and her dog Amos — gliding down a hill on Audrey’s wheelchair.

Audrey was born with spina bifida, a birth defect affecting the spinal vertebrae that can render walking and other activities difficult.

Bound to her wheelchair, Audrey is perfectly poised to teach her peers about gravity, and that’s what the book does. Written by a retired pediatric neurosurgeon, Dr. John Mickle, who spent his career at UF Health Shands Hospital, and his wife, Shelley Fraser Mickle, a novelist, the couple started a children’s press called Wild Onion that focuses on children with disabilities.

The Mickles’ daughter taught Audrey’s older sister at Littlewood Elementary School, and Audrey would sometimes come by in the afternoon.

“She (Audrey) looked like a little doll in her wheelchair,” Shelley Mickle said. “This red-headed girl became the image for our books.”

The book’s protagonist Tessee, like Audrey, has a lively personality and shows that “these are kids who are just as naughty (as everyone else),” Mickle said.

In fact, for Audrey, the equivalent of a “time-out” is a “lights-out” — when the lights around her wheels that light up like a Ferris wheel at night — are off because she’s not moving.

But in the end, she’s the heroine in the book, which is a reversal of how children with disabilities are often portrayed in real life, Mickle said, adding that other books have portrayed these kids as being saved instead of being victorious.

Similar messages of empowerment, acceptance and support were advertised by various community organizations in the sun-filled Lincoln gymnasium on Saturday, where a puppet show was taking place and families snacked on pizza, mini cupcakes and sliced fruit.

The festival, in its fourth year, had 39 vendors and was expected to attract more than 200 people, mostly families, throughout the afternoon.

“Our intention is multiple: We want families to meet other families because many stay secluded,” said Doris Tellado-Gonzalez, who works with Early Steps, a UF support program for kids with special needs and their families that co-organized the event, along with Children’s Medical Services and the Alachua County Public Schools.

“We want them to have fun, and we want them to get information about resources in the community,” Tellado-Gonzalez added.

Bert French attended the festival for the first time with his 3-year-old grandson, Keith, who has Down syndrome.

“There are a lot of programs. … You just have to tap into the social network,” said French, who drove from Hawthorne to attend the festival.

French has four grown children, and Keith is actually a grandson who he adopted.

“I was not about to let him be part of a society that throws kids with Down syndrome aside and doesn’t want to have anything to do with them,” French said.

Keith loves to read, and he works with an occupational therapist twice a week, French said.

“He wakes up every morning in a great mood. He’s a breath of fresh air,” French said. “It’s a little rough because I’m 55, but you do what you gotta do.”

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