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A place where being different is no barrier to fun

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Harley-Mae Mckenzie, 17, rides a carnival ride with her mother Crystal Mckenzie at "DAFF" Differently Abled Fun Fair at Greenville Convention Center on May 19, 2018. (Molly Mathis/The Daily Reflector)

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By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, May 20, 2018

What parent’s heart has not ached when their child talks of not being invited to a birthday party or being chosen last for a team?

Imagine how that pain is magnified when a child is stared at, laughed at or talked harshly to because they are physically or developmentally different.

Almost every parent, grandparent or caregiver at Saturday’s Differently Abled Fun Fair had such a story. Sponsored by Bishop Rosie S. O’neal and Koinonia Christian Center Church, the fair brought 370 individuals with special needs and their 462 caregivers to Greenville Convention Center for a day of games, dancing, face painting, crafts and carnival rides, inflatables and bicycles adapted for their needs.

It’s the second year Harley-Mae McKenzie, 17, has attended. She brought her mother Crystal McKenzie and grandmother, Marjorie Equils.

“They are so sweet and kind to her and they accept every child, every adult, who comes here,” Crystal McKenzie said.

There are times when the world isn’t always as accommodating, she said. There are times people become aggravated because Harley-Mae doesn’t move as fast as they do.

“I want to find things where she is accepted. I wish more people would be accepting of people who are different,” McKenzie said. “They go the same path they just have to take a different road every now and then.”

A highlight for Harley-Mae and her mom was ride on a tilt-a-whirl. McKenzie first hesitated at first; Harley-Mae has a seizure disorder but has been seizure-free for six years. However, the ride operator kept its speed at a slower pace so the McKenzie girls gave it a successful whirl.

The theme of this year’s event was “Soaring Beyond the Stars” and many activities were space-themed.

“We wanted our VIP guests to know they can reach beyond their current status,” said Nia Trammel, who leads Koinonia’s youth department with Angela Revis. Koinonia launched the fun fair when O’neal came to the congregation and said God placed on her heart a need to serve the region’s special needs population. All 284 volunteers at this year’s event are church members.

“(Bishop O’neal) always said that God will never forget those who remember the forgotten,” said Shondell Jones, Koinonia’s executive pastor. “We believe when we touch those people we touch the heart of Jesus.”

The day also gives caregivers a brief respite by making massages available to them.

“We hope it gives them a moment to relax their bodies and minds and (so they) feel like someone is carrying for me too,” Jones said.

Candace Mobley of Williamston took a moment to enjoy a massage.

Mobley’s son Michael, 17, has holoprosencephaly, HPE for short, a disorder where the front of the brain lobe fails to separate, causing severe facial and skull defects along with developmental and physical disabilities.

“He is one of the one percent who live past six months with his condition,” said his grandmother, Gloria Mobley, who joined the outing.

Michael cannot speak, he has limited hand and arm movement and is permanently in a wheelchair. He does operate a “voice” box that lets him ask questions and respond to questions.

His family brought Michael to the fair so he could meet with his friends, dance and play a few games.

“He goes places and likes to do what other kids like to do,” his mom said.

“Here he is with his peers,” said his grandmother. “Here, everyone is treated the same. You aren’t being questioned like we are sometimes when we do things.”

“Nobody stares at him here. They just say, ‘hey Michael,’” his mom said.

In general, people are good to Michael, Gloria Mobley said. However there are people like a woman who encountered the family twice at a local movie theater and made hurtful comments both times.

Gloria Mobley said she is very proud of her daughter and was happy she could be pampered for a few minutes.

“She has been with him from the minute he was born, through his daddy’s death and she has never wavered from being a good mom,” Gloria Mobley said.

Erica Grimsley, who lives in Simpson, has brought her son Carter, 16, who was diagnosed with autism, to the fair for seven years.

Eastern North Carolina AMBUC, the local chapter of a national organization that provides adapted bikes to children, provided bicycle rides to participants before a mid-day rain forced everyone inside. Carter was one of the first to hop on.

“He loves all the activities,” Grimsley said. “He loves all the rides, he got very excited when he saw the rides, and basketball. He likes the bikes and the climbing thing.” Grimsley said she appreciates the patience the ride operators showed the children and adults with special needs.

A lot of Carter’s Special Olympic teammates were at the event. Grimsley said it was great to see them socializing in another setting.

“It’s so great that he gets to see all his friends and they get together for a fun day,” Grimsley said.

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