On Saturday June 2, I had the opportunity to mingle with some very talented dancers from The Russell Home for Atypical Children along with the Universal Volunteers for the 16th annual Nathaniel’s Hope Make M Smile Festival at Lake Eola Park.
Nathaniel’s Hope was started by the Kuck Family shortly after the death of their four year old son Nathaniel, who was born with various disabilities. Since his death, Nathaniel’s legacy lives on in a variety of programs that celebrate the lives of children and adults with disabilities, better known as VIPs. With a Birthday Club, a church based respite program called Buddy Break, a Christmas toy drive in the form of Nathaniel’s Toy Shop, and the annual Make M Smile festival, there is plenty of love for all, and most important, limitless fun for everyone.
Along with volunteers from Universal Orlando Resort’s MyAbilities Network, a diversity resource group, I spent my morning bright and early at 5am, starting the morning with breakfast followed by a speech and prayer service led by the Kucks. We were then sent out to help the vendors and exhibitors set up their booths, while having some fun along the way.
Later in the morning, we were introduced to performers from The Russell Home, the first private, non profit, and non state funded care home for children and adults with severe disabilities in the state of Florida.
The home was originally opened in 1951 by Vantrease Russell out of her own home shortly after taking in the first child. Since then, the home has grown to house up to as many as 25 children and adults with special needs. The home includes a nursery, dormitories, playrooms, large dining and living room spaces, an on-site daycare, classrooms, a thrift shop, and so much more. Many of the residents have lived their whole lives there and are happy to be surrounded by a true family in the form of the residents and staff. Today, Grandma Russell’s grandchildren have taken her place and have kept her legacy alive.
A group of the residents and day care students take part in a weekly dance class. The dance class had the opportunity to become a part of the entertainment line up for Make M Smile, showcasing their talents in a series of three performances, one of them being a synchronized wheelchair dance.
After their noteworthy performance, the Universal volunteers and myself took the dancers around the lake for some fun. My buddy for the event was a young lady named Katie, who although hesitant at first to join in on the fun, opened up the moment we bumped into her idol Wonder Woman. The smile on her face was priceless as Wonder Woman signed a Chik-Fil-A fan for her.
Our buddies had a blast getting to meet a variety of characters, grabbing some free snacks and swag from the various booths that surrounded the lake, and getting a chance to interact with live animals in the Animal Land, including a baby gator from Gatorland.
The event brought smiles and sunshine to many VIP buddies and their families, as a variety of people came together to share resources, stories, talents, and most importantly, love. What a wonderful way to kick off summer by celebrating the lives of these wonderful kids and adults.
Interested in joining the party next year? Nathaniel’s Hope hosts Make M Smile on the first weekend in June every year, with multiple opportunities to get involved year round, from hosting a toy drive for Nathaniel’s Toy Shop, to helping your church host a Buddy Break. Find out more by visiting their website here.