This article originally appeared in the Friday June 21, 2019 issue of the Progress Times.
Custom wheelchairs were traded in for inner tubes as children with special needs and their families splashed around in a true water park experience this Tuesday.
On June 18 this week, the La Joya Independent School District held their 2nd annual Special Needs Family Night at the Aquatic Center in the Sports & Learning Complex. The event drew families from across the Rio Grande Valley and provided special needs and handicap-accessible amenities.
“Last year we had about 278 people, this year our goal is 300 to 350, and we hope to continue to grow,” Victor Garza said. “We have a group from Brownsville that reached out to us, and a group from San Benito and there are a few families that got together from Roma that are coming here tonight, so it’s become a little popular.”
Bebo’s Angels, a non-profit organization created to provide education and support to families with loved ones with Autism Spectrum Disorders, sponsored door prizes for the Special Needs Family Night and provided information to parents about resources available for their children.
Victor Garza said the district aims to provide their community and surrounding communities an opportunity to come out and let go at events like these.
“Everybody that’s here is in the same condition,” Victor Garza said. “They get stared at, they get those extra looks – tonight it’s about us giving them the opportunity to just let them scream and yell and have fun, to us that is very important.”
The LJISD Sports & Learning Complex was designed so those with handicaps and special needs could also take advantage of the facilities. Garza noted that one of the district’s top priorities is letting people with special needs know that they care for them.
“For those children and adults that might have a wheelchair that is electrical that might not be able to get into the water, we purchased specialized wheelchairs so we can take them into certain depths in the water,” Victor Garza said. “And more importantly, they can get under the big bucket and get splashed just like everybody else. We have mesh tubes if they wanted to ride down the lazy river, and we have the lift for that as well.”
It was a full evening as young people with special needs got to listen to the music, get in the water, drift down the lazy river and even go down a few water slides. The Sports & Learning Complex concession stand was open (with regular snacks for purchase and free pizzas provided by Board Secretary Espie Ochoa and board member Armin Garza), but it wasn’t really the point of the evening.
“I guarantee you, they’re not about the food tonight, they’re about the water and the slides and the fun, ” Victor Garza said. “Last year we finished at 9 p.m. and they danced until 10 p.m., they didn’t want to leave, they had a blast and the guards had a blast with them.”
LJISD Special Education Director Andrea Garza said that this event is the one she looks most forward to since its start.
“You can see the kids and their parents and the joy that it brings to them,” Andrea Garza said. “Our kids don’t get those opportunities very often. When they do, you can just see it. You can see the happiness in their faces, and it’s just a good feeling to see them being excited, being happy, being accepted and having a good time.”
She said that it was very important because the kids are able to come out, enjoy themselves and be accepted.
“This particular event that La Joya hosts, I haven’t seen anywhere in the Valley,” Andrea Garza said. “It’s something that is great for our kids.”
Andrea Garza added that parents in the district look forward to all the activities for children with special needs to participate in at LJISD, including a recent event where they were able to show animals and compete partnered with general education children.
“They can come out and meet other parents and enjoy themselves,” Andrea Garza said. “They can meet new people that are walking in the same shoes that they are.”
Several members of the board of trustees, along with Representative Sergio Muñoz, Jr., Representative Oscar Longoria and city of Peñitas Commissioner Felipe Quintanilla made it out to the Sports and Learning Complex to see the kids and families cool off in the water. Board President Claudia Ochoa spoke highly of the district’s ability to cater to all children.
“I always say it’s important to make all our children feel welcome, make all our children feel that they’re special and know that they can participate in anything and everything that La Joya has to offer,” Ochoa said. “Today is a great event, and it speaks a lot on what La Joya ISD is: all-inclusive, we love all our kids and we want to make sure that all our children are able to participate in all our events.”
Texas House Member Sergio Muñoz, Jr. (Representative for District 36) was glad to see that these events and amenities were available to children with special needs and their families.
“I think at the end of the day, it’s about opportunity, and it’s about including everyone in all the activities that the school and community can provide,” Muñoz said. “The more we can do to encourage that and have people participate to make that a reality, the better the community is going to be as a whole.”
Victor Garza said that thanks to the success of this year and last year, the district will be holding another Special Needs Family Night on July 30.