Reprinted from KilgoreNewsHerald.com, Sept. 23, 2015

Kilgore News Herald Photo
Kilgore News Herald Photo

By CHELSEA KATZ, news2@kilgorenewsherald.com

“From the first year, I had hopes and dreams that it would continue,” Josie Atchley said, getting emotional. “And this gives me the faith that it’s going to continue.”

With 1,000 red SAFFE Day capes and nearly 900 shirts given away, Atchley and other organizers believe this year’s Special Abilities Family Fun Event (SAFFE) Day might have reached another milestone by serving 3,000 or more people.

The Kilgore Fire Department created the event in 2012 to give people with special needs a typical day in a carnival-like atmosphere. This year, though, the day had an extra special appeal with the addition of red SAFFE Day superhero capes – the focus of the day was that every person can be an everyday hero.

“Today, we have made this a very special day in that it’s a day for our everyday heroes, and we believe people with different abilities are our everyday heroes,” Kilgore Fire Chief Johnny Bellows said, during the opening ceremony. “So join us – the Kilgore Fire Department, the City of Kilgore and the SAFFE Day Board – in welcoming all of our heroes today because every day they struggle, they come out with a good attitude, so let’s take a lesson from them and enjoy life and be nice and kind to everybody.”

Of course, fire safety and education were also at the forefront of the event with firefighters walking around throughout the five-hour event with coins to give out to anyone who could tell them a fire safety tip or answer one of their questions.

Once SAFFE Day 2015 Ambassador Judie Moffett – executive director of POWER, Inc. – cut the yellow caution tape ribbon to open the event, the day moved swiftly, according to Assistant Chief Danny Downing.

“Everything seemed to flow very, very well… We’re getting this ironed out,” he said.

For Downing, everyone who attends the event or helps put it on is a hero.

Now part of the SAFFE Day board, Moffett’s turn as ambassador was her first time to attend SAFFE Day, and she was surprised by the scale of the day. Moffett uses a wheelchair after a 1994 car wreck left her with paraplegia. She is co-founder of POWER, Inc., People On Wheels Encouraging Responsibility.

“Good grief, it was a lot bigger than I ever expected it to be,” she said. “I knew it was going to be big, but this is huge! Just the people – everybody that is coming and going – and all the smiles and just the excitement and the comments about how awesome this is and how we need this. There’s such a great need for this stuff. It just shows you, you come out here and you see the need.”

Kilgore News Herald Photo
Kilgore News Herald Photo

There is a difference, she said, in hearing about the need and seeing how many people are being affected by SAFFE Day.

“People with so many different types of disabilities,” she said. “It’s absolutely incredible… It’s a big deal, and then everybody gets to reap the benefits and then talk about it for the next couple of months, at least, and then just look forward to the next year.”

The next year is already set for the third Saturday in September.

In addition to the everyday heroes walking around with their capes, guests had the opportunity to meet another hero named Blazze, who wore a matching SAFFE Day cape on his back. Blazze’s character was specifically created for the event, and he stayed to talk to people, sign autographs and take pictures with anyone who wanted one.

“I know that our theme and our logos this year, gosh, everything was spot on, and I believe the cape… Some little something like that can make somebody’s whole day,” Downing said.

Vendors lined Commerce Street, volunteers and firefighters helped facilitate games along East North Street and East Sabine Street and different groups were giving away chicken wings, chicken legs and hot dogs in the food court set up in the Kilgore ISD parking lot to accommodate the 3,000-plus guests.

“It just means a lot to them,” Alyson Horton said. “Nothing’s as good as this today. It’s the best day of their life until this next time next year, and it’s just awesome.”

Horton helped at her family’s ‘Green Girls’ lemonade stand from Overton, and explained she had never been to SAFFE Day before but had experienced the atmosphere when she helped at the Special Olympics.

“I’m glad we came this year,” she said. “It makes you feel good. It’s so genuine – that’s what I just love – just the feel is so genuine. It made me tear up because you just know it means the world to that person. That’s what it’s all about is just make one person’s day. It’s just awesome.”

Sandi Evans, also at the lemonade stand booth, explained the feel was like a fair, but the prizes are all free.

Adding to the feel of the event was a DJ booth with Reggie Bell and a photo booth provided by Southwest Studios in which people could dance with Sparky and Blazze and take pictures with their friends, firefighters or other superheroes.

“They did several hundred photos and to me that’s just a huge thing right there to be able to take a photo of someone and give it to them shortly after they’ve take the picture,” Downing said.

While the year marked the fourth year for SAFFE Day, organizers said this year brought another milestone with the most special needs families served since its inception.

“It seemed to me that we had more of our target audience there than what we have had in the past,” Downing said. “I think that our message is getting out that it is a wonderful day for our special needs guests and the word is finally spreading of how much fun and how this day allows everybody to be normal.”

Liz Rodgers, case manager for the Kilgore High School special education program, said SAFFE Day provides an opportunity for people to see firsthand the struggles people with special needs face each day.

“It’s so easy to take things for granted in our own lives,” she said. “I can get up and put my own shoes and clothes on every morning. What I see at SAFFE Day is people, sometimes even just kind of stepping back, and saying, ‘Wow! I don’t have any problems.’”

As the former life skills and PASS – Peer Advocate for Special Needs – teacher, she said, the event gives people with special needs an opportunity they would not normally have and gives them a sense of pride as well.

“This is the kind of thing where if everybody’s kind of got the same mindset, parents can let their guard down just a little bit,” she said.

The volunteers and firefighters are there to offer help to parents who do not get many breaks from helping their child every day.

“Also it provides parents the opportunity, whereas maybe they’ve not really had as much opportunity to step back and watch as their child interacts with the activity or with people or whatever,” she said. “Usually they’re 99 percent focused on the kid… Sometimes the parent can step back and take pictures or just watch what it’s like for their kid to be in that swing that holds the wheelchair or to ride in the fire truck.”

“We’re happy that they’re having it for the special needs children and their families and adults,” said Marsha Pierce, who was out at the event with her family including a special needs child. “You know, there’s not a whole lot of things that are centered just on them, and to actually have things that they can be a part of the community is really, I don’t know, I love it!”

150923 SAFFE Day (2)Rodgers got emotional thinking about the positive experience SAFFE Day gives people with special needs and their family, friends and caregivers.

“It just looked like everybody was having a good time, just everybody. And of course, that’s been the case every year, but I guess I kind of got to experience it a little bit more this year,” she said.

One of the ways Atchley, organizer and city employee, gauges the event’s success is by the smiles.

“A lot of happy faces,” she said. “I can’t wait for next year. We are ready for next year.”

Runda Rogers, a caregiver with Community Health Care Group, had her first experience at SAFFE Day also after “the ladies” in her group asked her to join them.

“I’m very impressed with this,” she said. “I think it was a real good turnout, and I think it’s an amazing event that they are looking forward to every year.”

With more group homes and more individuals attending this year, Atchley said, “We had a lot of new faces and we saw most of all of our old returnees – veterans.”

When people leave SAFFE Day, Rodgers said, they can understand people with special needs and abilities are no different than any other person.

“Even though they may look different or act different, they’re people just like us with the same needs.”

Bellows explained the people with special needs and abilities attending SAFFE Day are similar to the multicolored Dalmatian in a picture he had in his office.

“It was different and it was unique,” he said. “The dog was different from the rest, and as I looked at that picture and I thought about it, you think, which one stood out? Which one when you looked at that picture did you smile at? Which one gave you a good attitude that day? It was the one that was different, and that’s what we think today. Even though we say people are different, they’re not. They’re all the same, but there’s several people here today that make us smile at all times.”

SAFFE Day 2016 is set for Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016 in downtown Kilgore.

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