Day of Caring: Special Day for Special Kids
By : Charli Nalepka
The Special Day For Special Kids: Day of Caring was founded by an avid sportsman and outdoorsman, he is my cousin Harry Miller who was disabled at the age of 24 as a result of a tragic work-related mishap when he was struck by a tree branch and paralyzed from the waist down. After spending over two years in a rehabilitation facility, Harry had great difficulty in coming to grips with his disability; a chance encounter with disabled children at the former St Francis Hospital would change his life. It was the children, many of whom were born with devastating mental illness or physical deformities, who helped Harry realize the worth in his own life. Several years later, Harry would become the founder and president of the Pennsylvania Sportsmen for the Disabled, a group of sportsmen dedicated to making many of Pennsylvania’s State Parks, Game Lands, and Army Corps of Engineers’ properties accessible to the handicapped. Two years later, his organization founded the Special Day for Special Kids as a way to share the outdoors experience with children who would otherwise have great difficulties participating in outdoor activities such as fishing, hunting and boating.
Harry does not advertise his sponsor’s names nor does he actively seek out big-name corporate sponsors. His philosophy was that the day is about the kids and not about turning a profit on their disabilities. I asked Harry how I could help and he said, “Just show up; we have over two hundred children who need to be made to feel as though their disabilities are not a barrier to performing the outdoor activities that you take for granted every day.”.
The day consists of arriving as early as 8am to help set up the park in preparation for the event. Activities include pony rides, games, arts and crafts, pontoon boat rides, face painting, and music and dancing. Volunteers are frequently needed at the dock to lift the various wheel chair bound children onto the pontoon boat as electric chairs can weigh in an excess of 200 pounds each. The highlight of the Day is the fishing tournament, where the park rangers set up an enclosure inside of the lake; the enclosure is then stocked with various species of trout, and bass. The children cast out their lines and if a fish doesn’t bite, the enclosure is staffed with volunteers who “help” the fish find every single hook. In addition, educational kiosks are provided by the many park rangers who volunteer their services for the event. Lunch at the Day is provided and all of the children need to be served in a very timely manner – and cleaned up after as well! Every year, the event wraps-up with a raffle. The children are given a ticket to participate in the raffle and the many anonymous sponsors supply enough gifts so that virtually no child goes home without winning a gift in the raffle.
In past years, I have assisted with the crafts and the park rangers with the children on the pontoon boating experience. After each child is placed onto the boat and secured properly in life jackets, they are taken out on 20 minute ride. During the ride, each child has the chance to drive the boat in open water. When returning to the dock, the children are escorted off the boat and loaded onto a waiting school bus that takes them back to the main picnic area. The process is repeated from 10am to 3pm, breaking only to help the other volunteers with lunch service. At the wrap-up event (prize raffle), all volunteers assemble in the picnic grove to help the children pick out their prize and then clean up the grove after all of the children have left.
Understanding the meaning and impact of the day becomes obvious with the arrival of the first child. The look of joy and anticipation on their faces is priceless, and I have not out grown this feeling in the four years I have attended this event. The reward of satisfaction and joy at the Special Day is unlike anything I have ever experienced and I look forward to this event every year. The day always places my own world into sharper focus as you begin to value what you do have; these kids don’t have many of the luxuries that the rest of us do. You respect the value of the miracle of life and you also gain an appreciation for how fragile life really is.