Five caring individuals who have distinguished themselves in helping those with special needs will be honored at the 4th Annual “Free to Soar” Gala at 6 p.m. Friday, Sept. 20, 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 – Joshua Harper of Oceanside, Calif.; Chris Salas of San Antonio; Karen Shirk of Vina, Ohio; Michael James Smith of Hutto, Texas; and Brianna Elisabeth Vitale of Lincoln Park, Mich. – will be spotlighted at the gala as well as at a luncheon earlier in the day hosted by Paesanos Restaurant in Lincoln Heights. 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.
“We received nominations from all over the U.S. lauding outstanding individuals 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’ noteworthy contributions to the special-needs community include the following:
Joshua Harper, Oceanside, Calif. – For the past seven years, Harper has provided free surfing camps for hundreds of children with special needs to help them reduce stress and sensory overload. He hosts camps in California and also drives all the way to Texas for camps at Galveston and Corpus Christi. In 2011, with sponsorship assistance from Billabong, he organized several free excursions for wounded war veterans so they could surf with professional surfers at exotic surfing destinations. Last year, he founded Waves of Impact, a non-profit organization to further expand the reach of making surfing adventures available to kids with special needs and wounded warriors.
Chris Salas, San Antonio – After suffering a spinal-cord injury in 1997, Salas founded Rolling Inspirations to help others with similar physical challenges. The organization began with four individuals and now numbers more than 35. In addition, the 38-year-old college psychology major has earned Volunteer of the Year honors at both the United Way and Warm Springs Rehabilitation Hospital in San Antonio, and he has become very active in STRAPS (South Texas Regional Adaptive and Paralympic Sports) as a soccer coach, player and recruiter. He also gives of his time to the Christopher Reeve Foundation and the National Spinal Cord Injury Association.
Karen Shirk, Vina, Ohio —Shirk tried unsuccessfully for years to obtain a service dog, however because she often used a ventilator to breathe, she was turned down as being “too disabled.” So in 1998, she founded 4 Paws for Ability and concentrated on training service dogs for young children. Today 4 Paws for Ability, which places approximately 100 dogs annually, is the nation’s largest organization whose primary mission is to train service dogs that help children. These include dogs trained in autism assistance, diabetic alert, hearing-ear assistance, mobility assistance, multipurpose assistance and seizure assistance.
Michael James Smith, Hutto, Texas – A champion for the special-needs community in Central Texas, Smith thought he would pursue a law-enforcement career after graduating from Texas A&M University, however after seeing the condition of facilities for adults with special needs, he opened Beyond the Limits, an award-winning day habilitation center that emphasizes community service and volunteerism. The center’s cardboard-recycling efforts also have earned recognition from the State of Texas Alliance for Recycling and Keep Texas Beautiful. Smith recently expanded his operations to encompass residential services such as group homes and foster care. His mother, Sanh Moss, was a Walk of Fame honoree in 2010.
Brianna Elisabeth Vitale, Lincoln Park, Mich. – Eleven-year-old Vitale, who is paralyzed and on a ventilator as a result of a motor vehicle accident, wanted to establish a lemonade stand to raise money for charity. With assistance from Home Depot, she erected her stand, and the first time it was in operation, she raised $950 for Make-A-Wish and some of her friends with special needs. She continues to set up the lemonade stand from time to time to help make life better for other physically handicapped children. She continues to undergo extensive therapy with a goal to walk across the stage at her high school graduation ceremony.
Mistress-of-ceremonies will be Jozannah Quintanilla of News 4 San Antonio WOAI-TV, who also has been an advocate for the special-needs community, and Leslie Mouton of KSAT-TV will headline the Fund-A-Visit portion of the program, which raises money so Morgan’s Wonderland can continue admitting anyone with a physical or cognitive challenge free of charge. The Rapier Family Foundation has pledged to match Fund-A-Visit donations up to $100,000.
Sponsorship information and other details about the “Free to Soar” Gala are available from Becky Thomas, gala chair, 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 gala’s other beneficiary – Monarch Academy at Morgan’s Wonderland – is located next to the theme park and accommodates students from 6th grade through high school. The school focuses on getting each student ready for independence and employment through reading and math instruction as well as social and life skills and vocational training. For more information, visit www.MonarchAcademy.net.
Morgan’s Wonderland is the hub 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, league play and special events. Net profits from STAR Soccer go to support the operation and maintenance of Morgan’s Wonderland.
Similarly, net profits from the San Antonio Scorpions FC pro soccer team and the team’s new home – 8,000-seat, multi-purpose Toyota Field – are earmarked for the expansion of programs and services for the special-needs community at Morgan’s Wonderland. For further information, visit www.SAScorpions.com.
With Toyota as presenting sponsor, Morgan’s Wonderland is located in Northeast San Antonio just west of IH 35 at the intersection of Wurzbach Parkway and Thousand Oaks Drive. For more information, visit the park’s website, or call either (210) 495-5888 or toll-free (877) 495-5888