Six compassionate individuals who have distinguished themselves in helping those with special needs will be honored at the 7th Annual “Free to Soar” Gala at 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24, at Morgan’s Wonderland.
The fundraiser will benefit both non-profit Morgan’s Wonderland, the world’s first theme park designed with special-needs individuals in mind and built to be enjoyed by everyone, and next-door The Academy at Morgan’s Wonderland school for students with special needs.
The six honorees – Heather Astuto of McKinney, Texas; Kevin and Melissa Johnson of San Antonio; Susan Moulton of San Antonio; Mindy Scheier of Livingston, N. J.; and Dr. Barbara Whinery of Enid, Okla. – will be saluted at the gala as well as at a luncheon Friday, Sept. 23, hosted by Fleming’s Prime Steak House & Wine Bar at Alamo Quarry Market. Their names will be permanently placed on the Wall of Fame in the heart of the park.
Joining them in the spotlight will be special guest of honor Amy Purdy, 2014 Paralympic Games bronze medalist in snowboarding, Team Toyota Athlete and spring 2014 “Dancing With the Stars” finalist on ABC-TV. Purdy’s lost both legs below the knee as a result of meningococcal meningitis complications. Through her positive attitude and strength, she has used this life-altering experience to motivate her to accomplish incredible goals.
Another one of the evening’s highlights will be a 23nd birthday celebration for Morgan Hartman, daughter of philanthropists Gordon and Maggie Hartman and the inspiration for Morgan’s Wonderland as well as other major initiatives to benefit the special-needs community.
“Each year we honor incredibly wonderful individuals who have dedicated themselves to promoting inclusion,” said Gordon Hartman, CEO of The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation (GHFF), “Once again, we received nominations from coast to coast, and each one was carefully reviewed by a panel of judges from Morgan’s Wonderland and GHFF. Those judges told me how tough it was to select the winners from so many deserving nominees, however we believe the values exhibited by the Wall of Fame honorees clearly mirror inclusion and other principles on which Morgan’s Wonderland was founded.”
Free to Soar master of ceremonies will be meteorologist Adam Caskey of KSAT 12 TV, and Rick Shaw will conduct the live-auction part of the program.
The Wall of Fame honorees’ noteworthy contributions to the special-needs community include the following:
Heather Astuto,McKinney, Texas – In 2010, Astuto founded the non-profit Especially Needed organization to offer year-round special events for special-needs children and adults in the McKinney area. The events include a fall carnival, A Special Time With Santa, an Easter egg hunt, the Super Owls summer camp and monthly birthday parties. She also worked closely with the Kiwanis Club of McKinney to start up the Angel League Halos T-ball team for younger children with special needs. Grants and gifts help Astuto stage the various events, however she oftentimes spends her own money to cover expenses in order not to disappoint families who really look forward to the various activities. She accomplishes all that she does as a single mom, caring for a 5-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old daughter with Down Syndrome.
Kevin and Melissa Johnson, San Antonio – The Johnsons co-founded Project Angel Fares (PAF) in 2011 to enable deserving families with special-needs children living away from San Antonio to visit Morgan’s Wonderland. They created PAF after learning that many families cannot afford to travel to San Antonio because of bills for doctors, medicine, therapies, etc. So they started raising money to help pay for transportation, hotel and some miscellaneous expenses. Joining them in this effort are the employees of their business – Johnson Bros. Bakery Supply, which operates in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. Over the past five years, PAF fund-raisers and the Johnsons’ generosity have made it possible for many families with special-needs children from across Texas and the U. S. to experience Morgan’s Wonderland and make lasting memories together.
Susan Moulton, San Antonio – The tragic death of her 8-year-old son in a car accident in 2007 spurred Moulton to create the Will Smith Foundation, which supports programs like Kinetic Kids and Any Baby Can that directly impact the lives of special-needs kids. The foundation hosts annual events in San Antonio and in Hawaii that honor Will’s memory as well as the ranching legacy of B. L. Naylor, Moulton’s great-grandfather, and her father, B. Naylor Morton. Moulton’s giving to the Witte Museum makes her its largest donor to date, and her generosity will lead to the opening of the Naylor Family Dinosaur Gallery at the Witte next year. Moulton has said that the Will Smith Foundation is “my way of healing. I didn’t get to finish raising Will, so this is a huge part of my life.”
Mindy Scheier,Livingston, N. J. – Scheier is the founder of Runway of Dreams, an organizationworking with the fashion industry to bring mainstream clothing options to the differently-abled community. A fashion designer by trade, she was inspired to create the organization when her son, Oliver, who was born with a rare form of muscular dystrophy, wanted to wear the same clothes as his peers. After months of research, Runway of Dreams created a toolkit of wearable technology, design modifications and customer-service-sensitivity training for brands to access and incorporate into their existing lines. This spring, Runway of Dreams partnered with Tommy Hilfiger to launch an adaptive version of the brand’s children’s line, the first time a major name-brand designer sold an adaptive version of an existing clothing line. Scheier aims to partner with additional brands and designers to make fashion accessible for all.
Dr. Barbara Whinery, Enid, Okla. – Inspired by her son, Jake, who has Down Syndrome, Dr. Whinery led a group of parents in the creation of the 4RKids Foundation in 2003. It serves children and adults with special needs in northwestern Oklahoma, and its mission is to promote awareness of individuals with disabilities and to provide them with vocational, educational and recreational opportunities. The foundation owns and operates a wheelchair-accessible miniature golf course that provides employment for special-needs individuals; the 2nd Story Employment Center, which also offers employment in document-shredding and product-manufacturing; and two gift shops where products from the Employment Center are sold by people with disabilities. 4RKids, which co-created a special-needs baseball league, annually hosts social events such as Valentine’s and Halloween dances.
Morgan’s Wonderland, which is completely wheelchair-accessible, features more than 25 elements and attractions including rides, playgrounds, gardens, a catch-and-release fishing lake, 18,000-square-foot special-events center, 575-seat amphitheater, picnic area and rest areas throughout the park. (Check www.MorgansWonderland.com for the latest information on days and hours of operation.)
The gala’s other beneficiary – The Academy at Morgan’s Wonderland – is located next to the theme park and accommodates students ages 12 through 24. The school focuses on getting each student ready for independence and employment through reading and math instruction as well as social and life skills and vocational training. For more information, visit www.MorgansWonderland.academy
With Toyota as presenting sponsor, Morgan’s Wonderland is located in Northeast San Antonio a half-mile west of IH 35 at the intersection of Wurzbach Parkway and Thousand Oaks Drive. For more information, call (210) 495-5888. Other details about the Free to Soar Gala are available from Becky Thomas, gala chair, at (210) 493-2811.