Culver City Observer -

Kids Carnival Creates A Community Of Joy

 

November 5, 2015

By Sandra Coopersmith

Features Writer

A disabled child is still, first and foremost, a child – and that came through loud and clear at the Culver City Senior Center on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 18 during the 13th Annual Kids Carnival as the premises resounded with their delight.

The event was thronged, with 320 participants and 92 volunteers.

This free collaborative celebration had its roots in a Disability Awareness Day held in 2001 by the Culver City Neighborhood Girl Scouts. Debbie Cahill and Cindee Zisner, current Culver City employees who were then Girl Scouts Leaders, reminisced about that event.

"It was the best thing we ever did," said Cahill. "It was an opportunity for the older Girl Scouts to learn how to relate to and communicate with children with disabilities. The Disability Advisory Committee ('DAC') had a speakers' bureau and Camille Jones, a Disability Services Specialist, now retired, was very instrumental.

"But in 2002 we didn't do anything in October, which is Culver City's Disability Awareness Month, and I thought we really needed to do something, maybe a penny carnival with games and little prizes, like what I remembered from my hometown years ago."

That pivotal contact with Jones led to their meeting Dr. Jay Shery, who belonged not only to DAC but also to the Exchange Club of Culver City ("Exchange Club") and was looking for a club project. And thanks to the efforts of Cahill, Zisner and Shery, in 2003 the first Kids Carnival was held at the Stone House in Lindberg Park.

"About 50 people attended," Zisner recalled. "It was held there again in 2004 but grew rapidly and needed more space and facilities, so since 2005 its home has been the Culver City Senior Center."

Per Darren Uhl, Disability & Social Services Specialist, the carnival is made possible through funding and volunteer assistance from its sponsors, the Exchange Club and the Culver City Senior Citizens Association ("CCSCA").

"These two organizations fund the event in full," he said. He noted the vital role DAC plays, adding that "we also partner with the Culver City Neighborhood Girl Scouts and Culver City Teen Center for volunteer support. Of all the events I've worked in 25 years of Parks & Recreation, the annual disability carnival most represents the true spirit of community and inclusion.

"This event would not exist or continue to be possible without the grass roots support and vision of local civic organizations and the time of many dozens of generous volunteers."

Those interested in donating time, entertainment or products to next year's carnival should contact Uhl at (310) 253-6729.

"We do this carnival as our project for the Exchange Club's National Day of Service," Shery said. "This is a day of fun when the kids can feel the same as everyone else, no one is stigmatized and everyone has a great time. Many parents have said that this is the happiest day in their kid's life all year."

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and on Oct. 12 the Exchange Club was acknowledged with a commendation from the City Council for its many activities, including having partnered with DAC 13 years ago to organize and fund the first annual Kids Carnival and every subsequent carnival, as well as its continuing support of individuals with disabilities and their families.

The carnival was a huge hit, offering games, prizes, food, drinks, a petting zoo, photo booth, crafts, resource information for disabled youth and adults, and even a quiet room. Ample entertainment was provided throughout the afternoon with karaoke, The Puppets' World Theatre, Benjamin Twist Balloons, and a rap performance by SoulShocka. Shery expressed thanks to "Sorrento Market for contributing food for the volunteers, to Bart's Carts for the cotton candy machine, Oliver De La Torre for the apples, and to CCSCA for the popcorn."

"In the beginning the carnival games were all originally homemade by the Girl Scouts," said Zisner, noting that they continue to be some of the games used each year. She described the innovative use of bells "so that the blind kids can participate," and remembered a blind girl saying she "had always wanted to play basketball and though she couldn't see, at least she had really good ears. So she listened for the bells and got a basket the very first time! I still get chills."

So many stories . . .

Michelle Smith came with her son, Christopher Akubuilo, 29, a popular young man whose friends kept coming up and high-fiving him.

"When Christopher was two he was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, and it was overwhelming," Smith said. "When he was in Challenger Baseball I met Cindee Ziskin and that's how I learned about the Kids Carnival."

Akubuilo, who loves math and computers, is currently taking classes in those subjects and physical education at Los Angeles Trade Tech. He earned a certificate in hair braiding through West Los Angeles College, through which he is also taking an online math class. An avid swimmer, he proudly displayed an array of medals awarded at the annual Special Olympics, in which he has competed at the state level since 1998.

Bill Neuhaus, who attended with his wife, Linda, and daughter, Becky, has been coming for eight years, having learned about the carnival through the senior center's monthly bulletin.

"Becky, who is not verbal, is now 45, was born with a rare syndrome and not expected to live," he said. "She weighs 45 pounds, is 4'10" but, though severely disabled, can feed herself and walk." He and his wife are both musical, and "Becky loves the beat of music. She 'dances' with me and will keep time to the rhythm."

His advice to parents with a disabled child: "Don't be afraid to live your so-called 'normal' life. Expose your child to all the things 'normal' people and children have to deal with. We've taken Becky camping and traveling and yes, people stare, especially little kids. I ask them, 'What would you like to learn? We're all different.' Our kids know more than we think they do. In some ways, we handicap them by putting restrictions on them."

But at Kids Carnival, they got to have fun and just be kids.

Ziskin's comment says it all: "To me, the biggest reward with this carnival is to see the smiles and the children's faces as they enjoy themselves and are able to play games just like their able-bodied siblings and friends. It's priceless, the smiles not only on the children's faces but also on their very appreciative parents' faces. It's very heartfelt. We should all be thankful for what we have."

Amen.

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