Morgan’s Wonderland will honor five caring individuals who have distinguished themselves in working with the special-needs community at the 3rd Annual “Free to Soar” Gala at 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 22, at Morgan’s Wonderland.
The fundraiser will benefit both Morgan’s Wonderland, the world’s first theme park designed with special-needs individuals in mind and built to be enjoyed by everyone, as well as nearby Monarch Academy school for students with special needs.
The five honorees – Lauren Chu of San Antonio, Dr. Chad Dietrichs of Austin, Mariah Kilbourne of Converse, Texas, Lilliana Mancillas of San Antonio and Shannon Wrights of Oklahoma City – will be spotlighted at the gala, and their names will be embedded in a translucent, “stepping-stone”-like permanent marker on the Walk of Fame that hugs the shoreline of the park’s scenic eight-acre lake.
Dr. Henry Cisneros, former San Antonio mayor and prominent businessman, will be keynote speaker, and Don Harris, WOAI-TV sports director, will serve as master of ceremonies.
“We received nominations of outstanding individuals from all over the U. S. who have been incredibly generous with their time and talents in promoting inclusion,” said Gordon Hartman, CEO of The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation (GHFF) who along with his wife, Maggie, envisioned Morgan’s Wonderland as a place where those with and without special needs could come together for fun and understanding. “Each nomination was carefully reviewed by a panel of judges from Morgan’s Wonderland and the GHFF. We believe the values exhibited by the Walk of Fame honorees mirror the principles on which Morgan’s Wonderland was created.”
The Walk of Fame honorees’ generous contributions to the special-needs community include the following:
Lauren Chu, San Antonio – After working alongside children with special needs at her church, 17-year-old Lauren organized “Hand in Hand – A Night on the Runway,” a special event that benefited Morgan’s Wonderland. She secured multiple sponsors including Macy’s Department Stores, which provided clothing for a fashion show featuring models with special needs. The show attracted approximately 300 attendees and raised $28,000 for the Morgan’s Wonderland Fund-a-Visit Program to enable financially strapped special-needs individuals to visit the park.
Dr. Chad Dietrichs, Austin – Dr. Dietrichs is president of Eels on Wheels Adaptive Scuba Club, an organization dedicated since 1991 to changing the lives of those living with disabilities through scuba diving. When he’s not practicing anesthesiology, Dr. Dietrichs encourages wheelchair users to set their chairs aside and gain confidence and independence in the water. Thus far, he has led Eels on Wheels participants on more than 30 adventure dives to locations such as the Cayman Islands.
Mariah Kilbourne, Converse, Texas — Having successfully dealt with her own physical impairments associated with cerebral palsy, Mariah advocated for improved accessibility for students with disabilities at her alma mater, Texas Lutheran University in Seguin. She went on to graduate from TLU and authored a manual on independent living for those with special needs. This spring, Mariah won the Ms. Wheelchair Texas 2012 title and used that platform to encourage inclusion through accessibility throughout Texas. In August, she went on to win the Ms. Wheelchair America 2013 title, an opportunity to reach additional audiences nationwide.
Lilliana Mancillas, San Antonio – Lilliana, Miss Teen Texas 2011, overcame a rocky childhood and discovered her desire to work with special-needs individuals at the age of 14 when she volunteered with Camp CAMP (Children’s Association for Reaching Maximum Potential). She has spent considerable time volunteering for organizations such as Special Olympics, One for Autism and The ARC. When she learned The ARC of South Texas needed presents for their annual Christmas party, she spearheaded the collection of gifts and contacted news media to publicize what proved to be a successful effort.
Shannon Wrights, Oklahoma City – Despite being legally blind, Shannon graduated from Oklahoma City University as a dance major. She now owns Aspiring Attitudes, a dance studio for people with disabilities. She creates dance routines for her 30 students based on each individual’s challenges, whether they be physical or cognitive. Shannon also teaches able-bodied dance classes and inspires those students to work with people with special needs.
The gala’s keynote speaker, Dr. Cisneros, has been a strong supporter of Morgan’s Wonderland since the park was an idea. The San Antonio native began his political career in his hometown by serving as a city councilman before becoming the city’s first Hispanic-American mayor. His accomplishments in expanding the job market and improving the city’s economy helped him earn many awards such as “Outstanding Mayor” by City and State Magazine and ranking as one of the 15 best mayors in the nation by American Mayor. Upon completing several terms as mayor, he was appointed Secretary of the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development by former President Bill Clinton.
Dr. Cisneros is currently the executive chairman of CityView, a homebuilder for average-income families, and he is the founder of American Sunrise, a non-profit organization dedicated to refurbishing homes and boosting home ownership in low-income neighborhoods.
Master-of-ceremonies Harris, an Emmy Award-winning sports anchor and sports director for News 4 WOAI-TV with more than 23 years of experience, has covered major sporting events including Super Bowls, Final Fours and four Spurs NBA World Championships. In addition to his work at WOAI, the Churchill High School graduate serves on the boards of the Harvey E. Najim Family Foundation and San Antonio Sports, and he is founder of the Don Harris Golf Classic, which has raised more than a million dollars for area children’s charities.
Sponsorship information and other details about the “Free to Soar” Gala are available from Anne Bristol at (210) 493-2811.
Morgan’s Wonderland, which is completely wheelchair-accessible, features more than 25 elements and attractions including rides, playgrounds, gardens, an eight-acre catch-and-release fishing lake, 18,000-square-foot special-events center, 575-seat amphitheater, picnic area and rest areas throughout the park. (Check www.MorgansWonderland.com for the latest information on days and hours of operation.)
The inspiration for Morgan’s Wonderland came from philanthropist Hartman’s 19-year-old daughter Morgan. Her soaring spirit despite personal challenges sparked within Hartman a deep desire to create a haven not only for those with special needs but also for their families, caregivers and invited friends.
In 2007, The GHFF was instrumental in the creation of SOAR (Sports Outdoor And Recreation), a non-profit organization to raise funds for building Morgan’s Wonderland. Construction began in spring 2009 and wrapped up in March 2010.
Morgan’s Wonderland is part of a larger 106-acre sports venue to encourage inclusive recreation whereby individuals of all abilities can play side-by-side. The nearby STAR (South Texas Area Regional) Soccer Complex offers 13 lighted soccer fields for tournaments, instructional clinics and special events. Net profits from STAR Soccer go to support the operation and maintenance of Morgan’s Wonderland.
Similarly, net profits from the new San Antonio Scorpions FC pro soccer team are earmarked for the expansion of programs and services for the special-needs community at Morgan’s Wonderland. The team competes in the North American Soccer League, one step removed from Major League Soccer. Construction of the Scorpions’ new multi-purpose stadium, Toyota Field, is moving forward in preparation for the 2013 season. For more information, visit www.SanAntonioScorpions.net.
Another outgrowth of Morgan’s Wonderland is Monarch Academy school for students with special needs. It’s located immediately to the east of the park and accommodates students from 6th grade through high school. For more information, visit www.MonarchAcademy.net.
With Toyota as presenting sponsor, Morgan’s Wonderland is located in Northeast San Antonio just off IH 35 at the intersection of Wurzbach Parkway and Thousand Oaks Drive. For more information, visit www.MorgansWonderland.com, or call either (210) 495-5888 or toll-free (877) 495-5888.