Spring Festival offers resources, fun

More than 30 vendors participated in the annual Spring Festival & Agency Fair for families with children with special needs.

AIDA MALLARD/Special to the Guardian
Published: Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 1:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 1:44 p.m.

Kalisha Eagle, mother of a 15-year-old child with special needs, saw first-hand a gap in services for families with special needs and set out to prepare herself to meet that need.

She established Heart's Desire Inc., a nonprofit organization for one-stop services and resources.

Eagle was one of more than 30 vendors participating in the Spring Festival & Agency Fair for families with children with special needs or developmental delays. The festival was held Saturday at Lincoln Middle School.

Now in its fourth year, the festival delivered on a goal to provide parents with one-stop shopping for information on local resources and services and children with fun activities such as facepainting, a puppet show and dancing. Toward the end of the three-hour festival, parents and volunteers hit the floor for some line dancing.

There was a drawing for gift certificates, a computer, books and other items. Everyone enjoyed pizza and healthy snacks. Vendors provided small gifts, candy and cookies, stickers, Frisbees, water bottles, pens and other items.

Dr. Barbara Henry, Exceptional Student Education, or ESE, supervisor for Alachua County Public Schools, said the goal was to provide families with a venue to receive information about available services and to facilitate networking opportunities and agency collaboration.

"I feel the goal was accomplished to the satisfaction of all, sponsors, vendors, families and the community as a whole," Henry said. "The feedback was very positive and encouraging."

Eagle, who established Heart's Desire Inc., a special-needs resource and referral center and caregiver relief center, said this was her first time at the festival as a vendor.

"A lot of people inquired about respite relief," said Eagle, adding that Heart's Desire provides overnight and daily respite for families and caregivers to get away, be free or just to relax. She said other services provided include personal care assistance, job coaching and training, and small business development.

Pat Smith, a nurse supervisor at Children Medical Services, said the festival provided an opportunity to meet other vendors and connect with the community. Children Medical provides services for eligible children with special needs. She said parents have an opportunity to enroll and receive coordination of services for their children. They also can receive training to care for their child.

"This is a very worthwhile event and it seems to get better every year," Smith said.

Margie Garlin, parent partner at the University of Florida Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, said the center provides services to children with autism and their families. "We help every way we can and the services are free," Garlin said.

Chasity Phillips, manager of the Special Olympics Young Athlete and Motor Activities Training Program, said the Young Athlete program for children ages 2-7 is an early childhood sports/play program that includes games, songs and fun physical activities to prepare children to compete in Special Olympics. Phillips said the motor program is designed for athletes with severe or profound intellectual disabilities who are unable to participate in official Special Olympics sport competitions.

Doris Tellado, family resource specialist at North Central Early Steps, said many parents expressed their gratitude for the opportunity to get information, meet other parents and watch their children have fun in an environment that welcomes children of all abilities.

"As a mom of a child with special needs," Tellado said. "It was a joy to see everyone dancing, having a good time and enjoying life."

Zoe, a mother of a special needs child, said the festival provided information and ideas she can use to help her child.

"It's enhancing what I already know," she said.

Dixie County residents Robin Rouse and Derrick Vazquez traveled to Gainesville to learn about services and resources to help Vazquez's 21-year-old daughter.

"This is a wonderful event and very helpful," Rouse said. "We've learned about programs we didn't know about."

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