By NVC Sophomore Dawn Thomas
On Saturday, April 9, the Student Leadership Institute students, led by Rodell Asher and instructors of the Alamo Colleges, descended on Morgan’s Wonderland eager to learn how they could serve and become volunteers of this extraordinary place that is the only park in the world designed with special needs in mind.
Volunteer coordinator Jere Delano greeted the students with a warm and energetic smile. After a short training session with Jere, whose name tag reads simply “Jere – Loves his grandkids,” the students participated in a ribbon cutting that was held in honor of the park’s 1st birthday celebration where General Manager Dave Force and Founder Gordon Hartman each spoke. The inspiration for Morgan’s Wonderland is 17-year-old Morgan Hartman, who grew up as a special-needs child. Morgan danced around in the background during the ceremony and greeted everyone with her contagious smile as well as handshakes and hugs.
The SLI students and instructors were given their assignments in the park and sent out for what would become a life-changing day for all included. Students volunteered at the park’s many different attractions such as the fully accessible Carousel, Sensory Village, Off-Road Adventure Ride, Wonderland Express & Depot, and The Wharf. To see pictures of the students, click here.
Jere reminded the student volunteers that this park was not only designed for the special needs visitors, but for all to come and play together.
“This is a place where families come for a rest from the daily routine,” explained Jere, “they know they can come here and not get the strange looks and stares that they receive out in the world because people do not know what to say or how to react to those with special needs.”
In the year since the park has opened, there have been visitors from 48 states and over 15 countries. Many visitors on that Saturday were there for the first time such as Tonya Sprowl who is from New York, but is stationed in San Antonio in the military. She and her husband have two daughters, ages 13 & 7. Their 13 year old is in a beautiful purple wheelchair and playing on the Butterfly Playground with her little sister as I spoke to her mother.
Mrs. Sprowl described her family’s experience as “Amazing. We are able to play as a whole family. My daughters are able to play together and do the same activities.”
The park has a huge impact on its volunteers as well. When asked what she hoped her SLI students would get out of the volunteer experience, instructor Veronica Rosas- Tatum from Palo-Alto College said, “My only desire is for all of the SLI students to experience the inclusiveness of this environment and gain an appreciation of how easy it is to interact with a special needs individual.”
My own personal experience at this magical place was something that I will never forget. I met so many lovely people like my new friend Renessa and her 11-year-old son Robert, and Clara, and Alice – our Duchess of Dance for our parade. My new friends all have a special place inside my heart now as do their parents and family members that I got to visit with. Their infectious smiles and sweet spirits will stay with me forever.
I must also include the park staff in my list of new friends as well. They all set fabulous examples and were so helpful and grateful for all of the volunteers there. As a matter of fact, I was so moved by my experience at Morgan’s Wonderland as a volunteer that I have cleared several dates on my calendar so that I can go back and volunteer again.
At the end of our long day, Park Director Peter Albarian, whose name tag reads “Hippie Bus Lover,” thanked the SLI student volunteers and the instructors for their time and hard work. He had warned us earlier that morning that we would leave with a different perspective.
“Outside these gates is the real world,” said Albarian. “In here is a wonderland where miracles happen every day.”
Please visit www.morganswonderland.com for info on how you can get involved and volunteer.
Dawn Thomas is also an NVC College Ambassador and in SLI Student-Tier I