What is scary, fun and downright out of this world, all at once?
How about your very first white-knuckled, “don’t-look-down-now” ride in a firetruck’s100-foot aerial ladder lift.
This was just one of the experiences firefighters shared with hundreds of elated children on May 6 during the Overland Park Fire Department’s Fun Day for Kids with Special Needs.
Saturday’s annual event was held at the Overland Park Fire Training Center where during the year, hundreds of trainees take on the heat to achieve firefighter certification. But, Saturday, all of the focus was on a different group of young firefighters, as the fire department welcomed their guests to the 14th annual Fun Day.
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Under a perfect blue sky, the children, their parents and friends laughed and smiled from one firefighting event to the next. Many took their first ride in a fire truck. They held their breath while riding sky-high in aerial ladders, and learned the ins and outs of police cars. The afternoon’s most popular activity involved the fire hoses. Many returned often to splash on the warm day.
Twenty-eight firefighters from Overland Park and neighboring departments volunteered to make the day unforgettable.
“They love the sirens and horns honking,” said Captain Tim Byrnes. “And, I love to see them smile...”
Amy Beau who came with her son, Cameron, said it’s nice to have a place where children can simply be themselves.
“Everyone here genuinely cares. We’ve been coming for four years and look so forward to it all year,” she said. “We start talking about it in March — how we get to hang out with the firefighters.”
Beau’s son, Cameron, 5, has CDG-la, a rare congenital condition.
“Though he’s defied all the odds, he can still be socially and sensory overwhelmed. But he loves it here.”
The love goes both ways.
“You just want to be here,” says Scott Jackson, an 11-year fire department veteran. “Other stations cover our stations so we can be here. Just to see the kids’ excitement and to see their faces. It’s rewarding for us. You can’t buy smiles like that.”
Jane and David Alstatt came with their son, Peter, 6, for their first time.
“Peter has a sensory-processing disorder, and our social opportunities are narrow,” Jane Alstatt said. “We can’t go to the zoo, or a normal movie. No field trips because the kids are excited and may scream.
“For us, this event shows a respect for people who have special-needs kids. It’s also a chance for parents to get together and see other parents in similar situations, struggling to find better opportunities for our kids. These are exceptional kids, but you don’t know how they are going to react or what might trigger their worries or anxieties.”
For most of the afternoon, Peter was pretty certain a firetruck ride wasn’t in his future.
When he finally decided to take the leap, his parents said they couldn’t believe their eyes.
“We couldn’t believe he took this challenge,” his mom said. “But because it was connected to fun, he went beyond his sensory limitations and fears.
“In this setting, you know everything will be OK, and you don’t feel awkward. Here, we not only feel accepted, we feel invited. This is how love works.”