by Alexandra Muto
This Wednesday, 740 kids from Niagara and Erie counties came out to enjoy a spectacular picnic filled with food, fun, and games. The Grand Island Lions Club Special Kids Picnic, an annual event dedicated to offering safe, supervised activities to developmentally disabled and physically handicapped children, has become a Grand Island tradition.
On this special day, the Grand Island Lions Club was welcomed by the Buffalo Launch Club for the children's activities. A large number of school programs for children with developmental or physical disabilities or impairments participated in the classic picnic-style event. Annette Lobl, a Grand Island Lions Club member and the chairwoman of the Special Kids Picnic, listed all the events that occurred this year, including boat and pony rides, car rides with the Shiners, visits from the Buffalo Sabres' Sabretooth, Pringles the Clown and the Lions Club mascot, magicians, face painting, and lots of food choices, including hot dogs, hamburgers, popcorn, soda and water.
It all started at 10:30 a.m., and busloads of kids from many school districts swarmed into the Buffalo Launch Club yard prepared to enjoy the extravaganza. The districts included Erie 1 BOCES programs from Clarence Middle School, Williamsville's Casey Middle School, and West Seneca Middle School, Heritage Education Centers, People Inc., and Sweet Home schools, as well as other students arriving with families.
As soon as kids were off the bus, smiling volunteers escorted them into the club's main parking lot to enjoy rides on the Shiners carts in the parking lot, meet with members of the Grand Island Fire Co. while sitting in a real fire truck, and enjoy pony rides. Volunteers accompanied participants to the docks where kids could take a relaxing scenic ride on the Niagara River on boats captained by Buffalo Launch Club members or on board The Richard A. Smith, a wheelchair accessible boat owned by Excalibur Leisure Skills Center. Later, characters like Pringles the Crown, Sabretooth, and the Lions Club Lion met and interacted with the excited children, whose faces lit up when they saw their favorite region-based characters.
The generosity of individuals in the Niagara County, Erie County and Canadian region is infectious and has allowed the event to expand to what it is today.
"This event is huge. We have volunteers coming from all over, we even have volunteers from as far as Merritton, a club in Canada (near St. Catharines)," stated Grand Island Lion Dick Crawford enthusiastically. He continued, "I've been helping this club for 20 years, and the community involvement is outstanding. We even have Grand Island High School groups like the cheerleaders and football teams helping students onto the boats, and the Grand Island Fire Co. showing kids trucks as well."
Throughout the sunny day, many eager volunteers from far and near assisted the visitors. Jerry Dubiel, a past president of the Grand Island Lions Club, signed in numerous volunteers from Grand Island High School and local organizations - such as the Grand Island Rotary, Boy Scout Troop 104 of Kenmore, GIHS cheerleaders and football players, even Kelly's Country Store, to name a few - while raving about their commitment to the picnic. He commented that the efforts of volunteers from both the Lions Club and other local groups make the event so meaningful to its participants. "The experience has been incredible. I have come every year since I joined the Lions Club, and we and other groups put this effort forward to offer the children (activities such as) pony rides, the picnic, boat rides, and more."
Volunteers from all over express their unbridled enthusiasm for the entire event. Tom Witkowski, the current president of the Grand Island Lions Club, noted that both the kids and volunteers can enjoy multiple activities or just the picnic component. Everyone enjoys everything: "There's really no preferred event at this festival, everybody involved (both kids and volunteers) really enjoys taking part in and putting together everything."
The giving spirit of the event made for a festive, lighthearted mood throughout the day. All volunteers were willing to help throughout the festival, manning new stations and staying for the entire event. Glenn Connell from the Merritton (Ontario) Lions Club expressed the easygoing nature commonplace at the festival when describing his volunteer placement. "This year I'm the bun man at the hamburger and hot dog stand," laughs Connell, "and take pictures for the Merritton Club, but I help wherever they can use somebody." John Shaffer, the district governor of area Lions Clubs, reflected this approachable attitude. Shaffer, who was making his first visit to this field day after receiving an invitation this Sunday, was willing to help out in whatever way he could. "I have been with the Lions Club for 15 years, and am now the district governor for a one-year term, but I haven't even been to this picnic before. I didn't even know about it! But I was just invited to come down this Sunday, and I wanted to come down and help out wherever I was needed!" Shaffer helped on the dock and visited with children throughout the picnic. He called the picnic "wonderful, because there are so many volunteers, even outside of the Lions, willing to come help this important cause."
The picnic is an inspirational event that was bound to bring out the best in its participants. Many of the children at the event have never been able to take part in picnic activities because of their challenges. This picnic offers them an opportunity to have the same kinds of fun other students their own age might take for granted. Connell notes that the reason the festival is so special to the children is because it is a rare opportunity for them. "This event is the highlight of the year for many children. I find it really important to be a part of this event." He is grateful to the Grand Island Lions Club for sponsoring the event. He says, "I'd like to thank Grand Island for coming out and doing this ... . This is the only event of its nature which I know about. No one else within driving distance and in Canada does a similar event. It's unique." Shaffer similarly replies, "I'll do anything for the kids here. It's so wonderful these kids have the opportunity to do things they don't normally get to do."
The Special Kids Picnic festival is a timeless event where all are welcome. It has proven to lift the spirits of both participants and volunteers alike. Dubiel notes that the festival should occur at its usual time next year as well, on the third Wednesday of the month. Anyone who feels their child would be interested in participating in the future should contact the Lions Club, no matter whether their child attends one of the programs whose school is involved or not. "Even if your school is not one of the groups coming to the event, you can come separately. We highly encourage parents to come to the picnic with their child if they can. They can contact the Lions Club of Grand Island to arrange this." With such a welcoming invitation, next year's picnic will undoubtedly be just as memorable.