2018-07-22 / Insight

‘It’s a very heartwarming day’

Eastern Michigan State Fair to offer Special Needs Day on Thursday
810-452-2601 • npugliese@mihomepaper.com

IMLAY CITY — The Eastern Michigan State Fair is a destination for many in Lapeer County and the surrounding areas, and the yearly event marks the highlight of the summer for hundreds of families who head to the fairgrounds in Imlay City to partake in the carnival, animal barns and more.

But for many with special needs, attending the fair seemed like a dream never to be realized. Those living with Autism Spectrum Disorder might find the lights, sounds and crowds overwhelming, while those with physical disabilities may be unable to board the rides of the carnival without special assistance that during a busy fair day would be difficult to find.

Five years ago, Eastern Michigan State Fair Manager Ian Kempf and fair organizers were contacted by Brown City resident Bruce Lilley, who operates an adult foster care home in the area. Lilley asked a simple question: what if there were a time during the week of fair for people with special needs?

“We had a discussion about how we could make that work. Bruce runs a men’s group home and a lot of his folks had never had the opportunity to go to the carnival,” said Kempf. “The lights and noise and the ride accessibility were barriers.” According to Kempf, through those initial discussions came the first ever Special Needs Day at the Eastern Michigan State Fair, and now half a decade later, it’s only grown more popular.

For two hours (10 a.m. to noon) on Thursday, July 26, the fair gates will open exclusively for people with special needs and their caretakers. Music is muted, lights are lowered, and extra staff is added to ensure each attendee has the opportunity to enjoy the carnival. “I’ve seen four employees lift a person in a wheelchair into a merry-go-round,” said Kempf. “That was that person’s first ever chance on a ride.” At noon, lunch is provided to all attendees by Imlay City Ford.

Robert O’Dell, coordinator of Transition and Career Services at Lapeer County Education and Technology Center, is central to organizing the yearly event, and part of his responsibility is reaching out to teachers, special needs advocacy groups and caretakers to raise awareness, and the numbers are showing that word’s getting out. In the first year of Special Needs Day, O’Dell estimated around 150 people with special needs and their caretakers attended, while last year that number was well over 300. “The kids really look forward to it because there’s no one else there to make them feel awkward,” he said. “(Fair employees) really take the time to make it special for them.”

O’Dell said that not only are several special needs agencies in Lapeer County regulars at Special Needs Day, the event attracts people from surrounding counties as well. “It’s a great day for them,” he said. “It’s big enough now through word-of-mouth that we’re getting people from all over.”

After the two hours at the carnival, said O’Dell, often attendees stay to take tours of the animal barns as well, something that, according to Forever Friends Network founder and president Regina Starr, is the highlight for many attendees. Starr’s organization provides support for people living with autism, and this year will be the second she and her group has headed to the fairgrounds for Special Needs Day. “All of our kids went through the barn, and this year some of us might be looking forward to that even more than the rides,” said Starr. “The animals are very calming, and the dedication of the (4-H and FFA) kids is so impressive.”

Starr said this year, FFN will be attending in force, with at least 40 attendees signed up. She said for families living with autism, Special Needs Day is a blessing. “For us, it’s like ‘oh, my child with autism can go?’ Where else can a family go to something like that and feel accepted and have fun,” she said. Starr said that anyone with special needs is welcome to join her group as they head to the fairgrounds on Thursday, not just those living with autism. Just reach out to her via the FFN Facebook page. “If anyone wants to come, I don’t care, they can come with us and I’ll sign them up,” she said. “They don’t have to be on the spectrum, any disability is welcome.”

As Special Needs Day gets more and more popular, Kempf and O’Dell said the staff at the fair will continue to be dedicated to making the day as memorable as possible. “It’s been extremely successful and certainly we wouldn’t have been able to put it together without Imlay City Ford, Lapeer County Community Mental Health, and all the caregivers out there,” said Kempf. “It’s just a nice day — a very heartwarming day.”

For more information or to register to attend Special Needs Day, contact Robert O’Dell via email at rodell@lapeerisd.org or by phone at 810-664-1124, Ext. 4160.

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