Kids with special needs find fun, friendship at Twin Lakes Park event

October 5, 2018
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Groups take paddle boat rides during the You’ve Got a Friend Day event for students with special needs, at Twin Lakes Park in Hempfield Township, on Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018.

Chris Wasko did a little fishing Wednesday at Twin Lakes Park before joining his new friend, Sydni , as they pedaled across the park’s lower lake on a paddle boat.

Wasko, 18, was one of about 670 students with special needs from 30 Westmoreland County schools who enjoyed fun activities and early fall scenery during the park’s annual You’ve Got A Friend Day. They were paired with student volunteers from area high schools and colleges as they explored the park’s possibilities.

“I think it’s very important to get out here with other schools and just have fun,” said Wasko, who attends the Clairview School in Hempfield.

Two carnival-type amusement rides allowed young attendees to swing and sway through the air, but Wasko preferred gliding across the lake during his fifth year at the event. “The paddle boats seemed to be the most popular,” he said.

“We knocked into a couple of other friends out there,” noted his partner, Sydni Overly, a junior at Mt. Pleasant Area Senior High School.

The two hit it off from the start.

“He has a great sense of humor, and he’s super nice,” Overly said of her partner.

“She’s great,” Wasko replied.

The event turned into a family affair for Sam and Stacey Carl of Penn Borough. They spent time with one of their daughters, Sarah, 15, a sophomore at Penn-Trafford High School, while a younger child, Lacie, 11, a sixth-grader at Penn Middle School, made her way through the park accompanied by a volunteer.

Sam’s sister, Mt. Pleasant Area support staffer Victoria Donaldson, also was at the park, to assist a 10th-grade special needs student, who came prepared to fish with a tackle box.

The Carls have been attending the special day at Twin Lakes for years, initially bringing their two eldest daughters -- Chelsea, 20 and Brooke, 17 -- when they were in elementary school. All of their children have struggled with learning disabilities.

The day can be educational, for those who don’t know how to fish, while offering all an opportunity for socialization and stimulating experiences, Sam Carl said.

“It seems like all the kids have fun out here,” he said. “I think it relaxes them a little bit. It helps them interact with other kids.”

Moved by music, Sarah’s favorite spot was seated in front of the park’s floating stage, where a disc jockey kept the young audience’s attention with a string of hits by Elvis Presley and others. Many of the students and their volunteer partners gathered on the stage to shake a leg to the beat-heavy tunes.

Sam expected Sarah soon would join them. “She’ll get up there eventually,” he said. “Once she warms up, she’ll be involved.”

Another hit with many of the students were the baby goats, sheep and a calf at a petting zoo operated by Greenfield Farms of Perryopolis.

“The animals pick up and sense these kids,” staffer Bobbie Nance said. “They’re calmer than they usually are in a regular petting zoo.”

By the same token, she said, “I think it awakens more senses in some of these kids that don’t normally get that opportunity.”

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