Nine compassionate individuals who have distinguished themselves in helping those with special needs will be honored at the 6th Annual “Free to Soar” Gala at 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 19, at Morgan’s Wonderland.
The fundraiser will benefit both non-profit Morgan’s Wonderland, the world’s first theme park designed with special-needs individuals in mind and built to be enjoyed by everyone, and next-door The Academy at Morgan’s Wonderland school for students with special needs.
The nine honorees – Lisa-Maria Boody of Lake Havasu City, Ariz.; Christopher L. Contreras of San Antonio; Archer Samuel Hadley of Austin; the Madison 5 Family of Cibolo, Texas (mom Amy, dad Dave, sons Braun and Andy, daughter Jamie); and Andrew McAllister of San Antonio – will be spotlighted at the gala as well as at a luncheon Friday, Sept. 18, hosted by Paesanos Restaurant 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 8-acre lake.
Sponsorship information and other details about the Free to Soar Gala are available from Becky Thomas, gala chair, at (210) 493-2811.
One of the evening’s highlights will be a 22nd birthday celebration for Morgan Hartman, daughter of philanthropists Gordon and Maggie Hartman and the inspiration for Morgan’s Wonderland as well as other major initiatives to benefit the special-needs community.
“We typically honor five incredibly wonderful individuals who have dedicated themselves to promoting inclusion,” said Gordon Hartman, CEO of The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation (GHFF), “but this year, we’re also saluting a phenomenal family, bringing the number of honorees to nine.
“Once again, we received nominations from coast to coast, and each one was carefully reviewed by a panel of judges from Morgan’s Wonderland and GHFF. Those judges told me how tough it was to select the winners from so many deserving nominees, however we believe the values exhibited by the Walk of Fame honorees clearly mirror inclusion and other principles on which Morgan’s Wonderland was founded.”
The Walk of Fame honorees’ noteworthy contributions to the special-needs community include the following:
Lisa-Maria Boody, Lake Havasu City, Ariz. – Born with cerebral palsy and unable to walk on her own, Boody last year built on her true passion – horses – to organize the first Exceptional Rodeo for special-needs individuals in her hometown of Lake Havasu City. More than 80 attended the event that included rodeo elements such as a grand entry on horseback, a modified barrel race and dummy calf roping. This success encouraged her to establish her own therapeutic riding program for others with special needs including disabled military veterans. Boody uses a special wheelchair called a “tankchair” to work her horses and lead special-needs riders on horseback. To further her cause, she created a non-profit called Hoofbeats From Heaven. More details are available at www.HoofbeatsFromHeaven.org.
Christopher L. Contreras, San Antonio – A strong advocate for students with autism, Contreras began his teaching career with Teach for America, a non-profit placing teachers with low-income school districts. He launched the first autism classroom at Bowden Elementary in the San Antonio Independent School District. In so doing, he ensured special-needs students are able to participate in all school events. Contreras became an avid supporter of the Autism Society of America and mobilized students, parents and school staffers to take part in the annual Autism Walk fundraiser. He earned his master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University and the Student Excellence Award for his work in advancing the welfare of special-needs students. Now a doctoral candidate, he is focusing on the lack of bilingual programs for children with autism as well as teaching in the Northside Independent School District.
Archer Samuel Hadley, Austin, Texas – Hadley, who has cerebral palsy and uses a power wheelchair for mobility, could not open doors at his high school. This came to a head one morning when he struggled to open the door while sitting in pouring rain. He resolved to raise the $40,000 needed to install automatic doors, so he organized the Wheelchair Challenge in which students pledged $20 and nominated their peers and school faculty to spend a day at school in a wheelchair. The Challenge raised more than twice the goal, enabling the school to equip five entrances with automatic doors, a new wheelchair ramp to the school elevator and a roof over the entrance where he got soaked. With the remaining funds, he took the Wheelchair Challenge to an additional school, and his ultimate goal is to take the Challenge to as many schools as possible.
The Madison 5 Family, Cibolo, Texas – Parents Amy and Dave Madison – along with their three children (Braun, 34; Jamie, 32; and Andy, 28) who all have the degenerative disease ataxia-telangiectasia or AT – have worked tirelessly to raise awareness of AT and to generate more than $1.5 million for research for the AT Children’s Project. Until recently, they were the only family in the United States to have three children diagnosed with AT. In spite of the crippling disease, all three have recorded multiple accomplishments. Braun, who achieved the rank of Eagle Scout, landed a job as summer youth basketball camp equipment manager for Spurs Sports & Entertainment. After almost a decade of hard work, Jamie graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio with a degree in communications and worked part-time at the UTSA recreational center. Because of his dedication as an AT volunteer, Andy was appointed an ambassador for the State of Texas by then-Gov. Rick Perry.
Andrew McAllister, San Antonio – In 2008, McAllister, who was born with cerebral palsy, started the Believe It Foundation to promote the inclusion of physically challenged children. His foundation has sent kids to camp, helped families participate in adaptive ski vacations and assisted families in attending the Endeavor Games, an event for special-needs athletes. McAllister’s foundation continues to work closely with Kinetic Kids, a San Antonio non-profit that provides safe, healthy recreation for youngsters with special needs. More information about the foundation can be found at www.BelieveItFoundation.org.
Free to Soar master-of-ceremonies will be meteorologist Adam Caskey of KSAT 12 TV. Comedian and TV personality Cleto Rodriguez of News4 San Antonio/Fox 29 will welcome and entertain guests; sportscaster Joe Reinagel of KENS5 TV and daughter Kayla will lead the celebration of Morgan Hartman’s birthday; and KSAT 12 TV morning anchor Leslie Mouton will headline the live-auction portion of the program along with auctioneer Tom “T-Bone” Bounds.
Morgan’s Wonderland, which is completely wheelchair-accessible, features more than 25 elements and attractions including rides, playgrounds, gardens, a 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 – The Academy at Morgan’s Wonderland – is located next to the theme park and accommodates students ages 12 through 24. 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.MorgansWonderland.academy
Morgan’s Wonderland is the hub of Wonderland, Texas, a destination for family fun. 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 pro soccer team and the team’s 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 a half-mile west of IH 35 at the intersection of Wurzbach Parkway and Thousand Oaks Drive. For more information, visit the park’s website, or call (210) 495-5888.