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Special Guests Day provides fun, community for individuals with special needs and their families
The Hawk Eye - 6/11/2021
Jun. 11—Annie Erickson was first in line Thursday for karaoke at the Burlington Memorial Auditorium.
Without missing a beat, the 8-year-old walked onto the stage in front of more than two dozen of her peers and their families attending Special Guests Day along Burlington's riverfront and confidently belted out the words to Katie Perry's "Roar," drawing a growing crowd to the dance floor.
"I wasn't surprised she was first," her mother, Judy Erickson, said as her daughter watched the next person in line take the stage while debating going up for a second time. "This is a good outlet for her."
Annie Erickson admitted she had an initial case of stage fright, but "I just think about something else — something random like unicorns."
Special Guests Day, put on through a partnership with Hope Haven Area Development Center and Through Joshua's Eyes, coincides each year with Burlington Steamboat Days.
It is one of many events Through Joshua's Eyes organizes for individuals with special needs and their families. There also are monthly swim meets June through August, Trunk or Treats each year near Halloween, Easter egg hunts each spring, and roller skating adventures at Kenny's Roller Ranch. The organization also recently arranged for special needs children and their families to go snow tubing at Snowstar Winter Park in Andalusia, Illinois.
"That was really special," said Teresa Heitmeier, explaining those with limited mobility were able to join in the fun.
Inspired by her son, Joshua, now 14, who was diagnosed with Smith-Magenis Syndrome when he was 16 months old, Heitmeier founded Through Joshua's Eyes seven years ago after noticing a need in the community for a supportive group of peers and more activities for children with special needs and their families.
"I just felt kind of alone," Heitmeier said. "I have a great, supportive family, but unless you live this everyday, you'll never understand, so we've really become a tight-knit group."
Kaci Bowling and her 8-year-old daughter, Kaylinn, are regular attendees of Through Joshua's Eyes events.
"She loves to dance," Bowling said as her daughter slow danced with 9-year-old Terren Donlan.
At a nearby table, Willie Newman Jr., 7, contributed to the karaoke in his own way, his intermittent clapping seemingly adding emphasis to the lyrics.
Newman was diagnosed with nonverbal autism at the age of 2.
"He used to talk a little bit, but then he just stopped," his father, Willie Newman, said.
The abrupt change spurred Newman Sr. and Latosha Dunn, Newman Jr.'s mother, to take him to a specialist. The diagnosis opened the family to a whole new world.
"It opened my eyes and taught me a lot about autism," Newman Sr. said.
While their son cannot speak, Newman Sr. and Dunn, along with their two daughters, Karma, 11, and Syonna, 3, have found other ways to communicate, relying largely on pictures, body language and sign language.
The two still find themselves marveling at their son's independence, analytical thinking and problem solving skills.
"I wouldn't change a thing," Newman Sr. said.
While the mother and father glow with pride while talking about their son, Dunn found herself seeking the company of other parents of children with needs similar to those of her son.
"The autism spectrum is so wide, finding somebody else with low-functioning, non-verbal autism is hard," Dunn said.
So she turned to social media, where she was able to find and join a number of support groups. Then she learned about Through Joshua's Eyes. Now, the family rarely misses an event, especially swimming.
"(These events) make for a smaller crowd so he doesn't get overwhelmed so much," Dunn said, adding that the gatherings are good for her daughters as well. "They see they're not along and that there are other special needs kids out there."
After nearly two hours of singing and dancing, the special guests made their way to the carnival with contagious excitement and smiling faces.
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