This article originally appeared in the Friday Aug. 2, 2019 issue of the Progress Times.
For Veronica Garza, events like the LJISD Special Needs Family Night provide a platform designed to create awareness and remind the community that everyone is deserving of respect.
This Tues. July 30, 2019, the La Joya Independent School District held this summer’s second Special Needs Family Night. While technically an annual event, the Sports and Learning Complex Aquatic Center (located at 1801 Western Rd. in Mission) opened its doors again to wrap up the summer months.
This is the third time the district has held a night at the complex that is open exclusively to students with special needs and their families from across the Rio Grande Valley. With the help of several organizations that came together to sponsor the event, word spread quickly, and families formed a long line outside before 6 p.m. when the night started.
According to LJISD Athletic Director Victor Garza, they were prepared for up to 600 people in attendance in part because of the sponsors and in part because interest in the event has grown exponentially in the last year.
“It was more than I anticipated, but our lifeguards are ready,” Victor Garza said. “The kids will have a blast with any and all the apparatuses we have.”
He added that it was important to create a space for children and people with special needs where no one feels ostracized.
“We all understand each other,” Victor Garza said. “We understand those stares, we understand those frustrations. At the end of the day, we can understand enough [to give those with special needs the space] to say ‘hey, it’s about us, let’s have fun.’”
Sponsors of the event included the city of Alton, city of Palmview, St. Michael’s Pediatric Ambulance, the Capable Kids Foundation, National Alliance on Mental Illness RGV, Driscoll Health Plan, the RGV Down Syndrome Association and Bebo’s Angels. Bebo’s Angels was also a sponsor of the last Special Needs Family Night, and just a few weeks later other organizations came together for this evening.
Bebo’s Angels, a non-profit organization that aims to advocate for parents of children with special needs in times of need through education and disability rights, were one of the stands set up in the Aquatic Center.
Veronica Garza, a volunteer with Bebo’s Angels who has three daughters with Autism, spoke highly of events like the Special Needs Family Night.
“The overall goal when we do events like this is to practice awareness and acceptance at the same time,” Veronica Garza said. “When we have a community outing, we’re allowing people to know that this is a special needs night, we exist and therefore we are.”
Bebo’s Angels meets once monthly in order to unite with parents and prepare people who need to advocate for their special needs children. Information about their group can be found at www.bebosangels.org.
“We’re here because we’re celebrating that they are this unique,” Veronica Garza said. “It’s about acceptance – the community is allowing us to be in their facility with ease, not even having to worry about being judged or not having to worry that a child is going to get hurt because they provide us with ample security and lifeguards.”
Garza joined Bebo’s Angels because of her daughters and continues to volunteer so that parents with similar circumstances can be educated on how to navigate their and their families’ lives.
“We expect more of this,” Veronica Garza said of the event. “Because we start to see the special needs community be greater, it falls upon us to spread awareness and acceptance automatically to catch up with that need.”
Victor Garza said the sponsors provided monetarily with donations and were present at the event to give families information about the resources available for them and their child with special needs. Backpacks with school supplies were passed out as well for the students with special needs in particular.
LJISD Board of Trustees Vice President Alex Cantu and former board member J.J. Peña were in attendance, and spoke about the intention to make events like these possible at the Aquatic Center. Built with handicap accessibility and outfitted with water-accessible wheelchairs and special inner tubes, the facilities combined with certified lifeguards ensure a safe evening for all.
“Being one of the members who approved this [Sports and Learning Complex Aquatic Center] opening, despite all the criticism and adversity that the district faced, this is why it was done,” Peña said. “Coming here today and seeing this, you can see the smiles on these kids’ faces. No matter who tries, you can’t put a price on that.”
Cantu noted that it was exciting to see kids from throughout the RGV having a good time and enjoying the facilities.
“Who knows? In another district, maybe these kids wouldn’t have the opportunity that they have right now,” Cantu said. “For them, sometimes it’s life changing. As a board member, just seeing their smiling faces and their parents is really what it’s all about. We’re proud of everything we’ve done in our district, including being able to impact our kids in a positive way.”