A special day for kids

A very special art show highlights students with special needs

by Eren Tataragasi

Eren Tataragasi/UCW photo

MONROE – Whether it was sand painting, coloring, hula hooping, or just going for a hayride, the Very Special Arts event Monday, May 21, at Benton Heights Elementary School of the Arts had something for everyone.

But this wasn’t just any arts festival.

The event is similar to Special Olympics in that it honors the accomplishments of special-needs students and gives them an outlet to express themselves, have fun and interact with their fellow students. But with Very Special Arts, there’s no competition, just fun.

Very Special Arts, while held at Benton Heights, was put on this year by students from Parkwood High School.

The annual event was once held at a local recreation facility, then moved to Piedmont High School. But when more than 2,000 students tried to pack into the high school, Piedmont had to back out.

So Frank Meier at Parkwood High School and his National Art Honors Society picked it back up and for two years have hosted the event.

This year, they hosted about 300 students – volunteers and participants – from schools all over Union County.

Tracy Price, art teacher at Piedmont High School, who used to host Very Special Arts and still helps with the event, said Union County’s event is unique.

“Most of the events in North Carolina are created by Kiwanis or Lions Club, but this is truly made by students for students,” Price said. “It’s a fantastic day and students benefit so much from being with the special-needs kids. It really broadens their horizons.”

Eren Tataragasi/UCW photo

And that’s certainly been the case for Parkwood seniors Reagan Moser and Leea Bryant who participated in the event as buddies for the second year on Monday.

Moser also played a special role in this year’s event, having painted a portrait of outgoing Superintendent Ed Davis and presented it to him during the opening ceremony Monday.

“I just love art, so I like being able to share it with people who can’t do it themselves,” Moser said. “I like being able to walk around and help the kids. Just to see them smile is nice.”

Bryant said she enjoys similar aspects of the event, but also has a deep appreciation for what the event has taught her.

“It makes you more sensitive to other people and children,” she said. “They’re so great, so happy and not judgmental. Before, I had a friend who wouldn’t use the ‘R’ word and I didn’t understand. But I know now that is very derogatory and these kids are great.”

And Davis, who got his start in education as an exceptional education teacher, said it’s that lesson and that time spent with the special-needs students that is so vital to both sets of students.

“It’s a win-win,” he said. “This has been a great program for years. The arts are for everyone and it’s wonderful to have the students involved, especially the special needs students. Art can impact all our lives and it’s a great opportunity for students to help.”

Incoming Superintendent Mary Ellis agreed, and she’s seen the impact volunteering with the event can have on a teenager first-hand, as her daughter has been a buddy in the past.

Two high schoolers help a Union County special-needs student with an art project during the Very Special Arts event May 21. Eren Tataragasi/UCW photo

“The perspective it gives children, and awareness to be more considerate … they realize different isn’t good or bad, it’s just different and it takes the world to get along,” she said. “I salute these teachers. I was an English teacher and I know sometimes it’s easy to get tunnel vision. But they’re seeing the big picture and teaching their kids not to use the ‘R’ word and getting them involved.”

Ellis said the Very Special Arts is as good an opportunity for the special-needs children as it is for the high-schoolers because it gets them to stop thinking so much about themselves.

“Teenage years are very selfish years and this helps them be less self-centered and more about others which is what we’re supposed to be about,” she said. “Union County will absolutely continue to be an avid supporter of Very Special Arts.”

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