Saturday, April 7, 2012

Easter Egg Hunt for Acceptance - Happy Easter!


Dear Autism Empowerment Friends,
Today Autism Empowerment hosted what I will call our first MAJOR event. John and I hosted an Easter Egg Hunt for us, our two kiddos and what I estimate to be 1,000 of our special needs community friends if I include adults, children and older siblings (not hunting) in attendance. 
It was a GORGEOUS Spring day, perfect weather for an Easter Egg Hunt.  I always like to encourage people to let their lights shine and it truly was a beautiful Saturday afternoon.
Still... even though we'd been preparing for this hunt for quite awhile and started taking pre-registrations over a month in advance, we did not expect this large of our turnout for Autism Empowerment's 1st Annual Special Needs hunt.
In a month's time, we had about 136 pre-registrations with about 50 kiddos and young adults pre-scheduled for our first hunt (including all children on the autism spectrum and/or with any special need.) The vast majority (over 90%) of those pre-registered were on the autism spectrum.  We wanted to make the hunt open to all as there had been a previous charity that was no longer in existence who had hosted a similar event the previous year and many years prior. Our intent was to be inclusive and make sure that the kids with all sorts of special needs who had been coming to McKenzie Stadium for many years as a family tradition continued to have that opportunity.
We thought we'd play it safe and plan for about 150 kiddos in the first hunt figuring that maybe 2/3 would not pre-register.  When it came time for the hunt and I looked out on the field and I had announced that the first hunt was for kiddos on the autism spectrum and with special needs only, I was looking out at a field of at least 300 kids. Maybe more?
Wow!!!  You ever see that commercial on TV (the company escapes me.... so much for brand advertising...) where they open for business online and are huddled in front of the computer awaiting excitedly for orders... and then the clicker goes, 1... (and they cheer), 2..(and they cheer). 3......and then it starts rolling upwards like crazy... 100, 249, 600, 720000, 89 gazillion? (I exaggerate of course.) Well THAT is what it seemed like for us today.  
We had purchased 4000 pre-stuffed candy & prize filled eggs from a company that exclusively employs individuals with disabilities.  We wanted to support the community so what better way than giving our dollars to an organization that employs those on the spectrum and with a variety of special needs?  I would have ordered more but as of 2 weeks before the hunt, we only had 50 registrations.  Then they came rolling in.  (We are taking notes folks, we are learning!)
We figured with 4000 eggs, we'd have 1200 in the first hunt, 2600 in the second hunt and 200 eggs in reserve for kids who came late or who didn't get eggs.  That was based on an estimation of 150 kiddos in the first hunt and 300 in the second hunt.  My goals was for each hunter to bring home at least 8 - 12 eggs.
So when the number of people over doubled that... almost tripled that in certain age brackets...  it meant for a situation where most children were left with a handful or less of eggs.
I am SO sorry about that.  Next year, should the community still grace us with their presence, we will have WAY more eggs! 
John and  I wanted so much to be an accepting, fun, SENSORY friendly event that was well organized and ran smoothly. You can try to plan as much as you can but unexpected things pop up and we will learn from our mistakes.
I know that we had less volunteers than had registered (about 25 less since we lost a group to an emergency in the 11th hour...almost hitting midnight...and that was the group that had been trained to egg the field and usher kids to appropriate areas) and we definitely could have used more volunteers even then. Next time, we're going to have a completely different system for handling that and all volunteers will be trained in advance. 
I know that the wind came right when we were setting up at about 3:15 p.m. and blew away our carefully alphabetized pre-registration forms. As kind volunteers picked them up, the wind blew them away again.. Ahhh... what would life be without challenges or as I like to call it, character building opportunities?
I also learned late in the game (this morning) that a local Portland magazine misprinted the starting time of our hunt at 2 p.m. instead of 4 p.m. and left out that our name was Autism Empowerment, leaving some to be confused as to which group was hosting the event.
So we have some lessons to learn.  I hope that most people there were flexible and had a good sense of humor.  I don't think ANY of us expected that there were so many families with autism and special needs in the Greater Vancouver / Portland Metro area.  Or at least we didn't expect so many of them to show up at our Easter Egg Hunt!
But a bright sunny day always helps!  We hope to bring many bright opportunities in the future and we hope you will join us again!
Positives: We served a LOT of people in the community today.  It was Free to attendees.  If people wanted to donate they could but it was not required.  I think we ended up with about $45 and some change and I am quite grateful to everyone who contributed because each $1 and each cent helps!
We handed out some great free resources. There was an Easter Bunny, free face painting, free prizes, free drinks, free opportunities for photography for everyone and a raffle where I called out about 120 numbers for prizes. I saw a lot of smiles and heard a lot of laughter.  Good stuff.
If you were a family that had fun and your kiddo(s) left with smiles, I am so pleased you had a positive experience.  That was ABSOLUTELY our intention.
But now I want to speak to something that absolutely tears at my heart and sickens me deep inside.
Autism Empowerment was built on four foundational pillars - Accept, Enrich, Inspire and Empower.  The first of these pillars is Accept.  It represents self-acceptance, parental acceptance and societal acceptance... and it is meant to apply to everyone.
That means that if my child has autism and your child has ADHD, we strive to show acceptance toward each other.  It means if my child is in a wheelchair and yours is in a walker, that we strive to show acceptance toward each other.  It means that we show love and kindness and grace and humility to our own family and to those in our community... whether that be the Greater Vancouver community, the Northwest, the autism community, the special needs community, boys, girls, teens, adults, seniors or even the purple pizza eater community (gotta watch out for them!).
We show respect.  It means if we make a mistake and we will because we are all human that we come from a place of grace and apologize and see if there is a way we can make it better. It means we pitch in to help if we see it is needed and we uplift rather than tear down.
It means to love thy neighbor... regardless of his/her social status, ethnic background or ability level.
THAT is what I believe in my heart.  That is what my husband believes.  That is what Autism Empowerment is founded upon and believes.  Those are the traits that we want each person that volunteers for our organization to embody.
It came to my attention that today, there were families that left with children and adults in tears because they were told their kids should not be hunting in the first hunt if they were physically capable of hunting in the second.  This was NOT authorized by Autism Empowerment and will NEVER be authorized by Autism Empowerment.
On our website, in our announcements, in our ads that we personally placed, on the microphone (multiple times), in any email exchanges with authorized volunteers, we said that the first hunt includes those with ANY special needs and their caregivers. My own children are on the autism spectrum.  Our organization is called Autism Empowerment. Why anyone would tell another person that their child with autism (or any other special need) could not hunt in the first hunt is unfathomable to me and saddens me deeply. 
I am very very sorry. I wish I could turn back time and make things better.  I wish that we had more eggs and more registration tables.  I wish we had financial sponsors for the hunt so we could have afforded to bring all sorts of amazing treats and goodies out to you guys. Each of you is a limited edition.  You are not a 1 in 88 or a 1 in whatever statistic to us. You are the 1 in 1 and we always aim to serve the 1 in 1.  
We are learning.  We want your feedback.  Constructive criticism is fine.  Suggested solutions are even better!  Please email karen@autismempowerment.org or john@autismempowerment.org and let us together make things better for the future!
If you are a person who believes in our ideals as stated above and would like to volunteer in future events, please let us know as well.  We want to have positive, inspirational, motivational and flexible, loving volunteers.
As we have also heard a lot of positive stories about today's event, we'd love to hear them too.  Please email us your pictures and stories as we'd love to share them with the community and show the world just how amazing the Northwest autism and special needs community can be and how our kids are letting their lights shine one by one!
We also know that we did have some amazing people who went above and beyond to help us out today!  You know you are. Thank you so much for stepping outside of yourself to help others. Thank you for your flexibility.  Some of you (Annie & Tammy) I introduced myself to twice even though I already knew your name and face the moment after I introduced myself.  It's the Aspie in me...  
Thank you also to all our sponsors and donors who donated in-kind items and time to this event!  We listed them in event literature but there is also a link above. Please help support them as well!
Thank you again for coming out to our Easter Egg Hunt.  We look forward to serving you in the future and hope together we can work to create a collaborative positive community that promotes Accept, EnrichInspire and Empower!
HAPPY EASTER!
Karen & John

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