By Jaclyn Mandelbaum
Smiling faces warmed the hearts of many as a young child said, “This is the best day of my life.” On March 1, over 100 children with developmental disabilities filled the Cook/Douglass Recreation Center for a day of fun organized by the Rutgers Recreation Advisory Council (RAC). At the annual Special Friends Day, the children were “buddied up” with over 200 Rutgers students who served as their “special friends.” Each child had two buddies.
Many children are students of the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center in New Brunswick, New Jersey, although admittance is not limited to just those students. Any parent wanting to bring their child to the event is welcome. The large majority of children who attend Special Friends Day have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder or quadriplegia, although each child’s handicap varies tremendously.
The event has been running for the past 19 years. Organizers come up with a new theme each year. This year’s theme was board games. With the help of various sponsors and volunteers the recreation center was transformed to fit the theme. The decorations featured life-sized Monopoly pieces, Candy Land décor, Twister displays, and much more.
Rutgers sophomore and decorations chairperson Amanda Griglak said, “I really hold this event so close to my heart. It took months of preparation, but me and the rest of the RAC were completely determined to give the recreation center a total transformation. We wanted to make it like a paradise or an escape. We also wanted the decorations to be interactive and come to life. I think it came out pretty well.”
The event included a variety of activities and entertainment for the children. Organizers were conscious to include many things that children confined to wheelchairs could participate in as well. The day featured a dunk tank, clowns, jugglers, face painters, and two “moon-bounces.” Twenty-four clubs and organizations from Rutgers set up tables with a variety of arts-and-crafts and games. One organization set up a picture-frame-making station, while another provided children with material to create their very own crowns, for example.
Recreation Advisory Council President Michael Daley said “It is really nice for children to be ‘buddied up’ with college students. There is an older sibling feel to it, and it’s awesome to have that kind of comradery. It is also nice for parents to relax and get a day for themselves knowing their children are in good hands.”
The Red Bulls professional soccer team also made an appearance. A lot of children gravitated to them and the team immediately taught them how to do some soccer skills. The Seeing Eye Puppy club from Rutgers brought many of their dogs and puppies to play with the children. For Christina, an attendant of Special Friends Day, playing with the Golden Retriever’s was the highlight of her day according to her mother.
“DJ Mike” played music and games with event-goers. He has been the disc jockey at the event for the past several years. Many children were fascinated by the equipment he brought with him. He allowed them to spin their own music. Charlene Nobleza, a RAC executive board member, said “I thought that it was really cool of DJ Mike to let everyone spin their own music. I know a lot of DJ’s get really protective of their equipment but he was totally great about it.”
Only minor glitches seemed to occur throughout the course of the day. One of the inflatable moon-bounces deflated a few times. Within a few minutes the moon-bounce was up and working. The Mounted Patrol was also supposed to come by with a few horses for pony-rides. An unexpected snow storm prevented this activity from occurring.
When Paul Fichbach, professional staff advisor of RAC, was asked about the event he was eager to share some of the reactions he received from parents. In a letter he received, a mother wrote, “What can I say? Brittany thoroughly enjoyed another ‘special’ day with her friends at Rutgers! Her buddies, Annie and Fufa befriended her the moment she walked through the front door. She had a blast crafting and swimming and seeing the big dogs, chatting about girlie stuff and swimming yet again.” The letter continues, “I asked her if there was anything that could have made her time greater and she simply replied, ‘Today was the best day of my life!’”
When Special Friends Day Chairwoman Corrie Payson was asked if the event will run again next year her reply was, “Absolutely. As long as Recreation Advisory Council is existing, so will Special Friends Day.”
Jaclyn Mandelbaum is a Rutgers University junior. She is double majoring in Journalism and Media Studies and Environmental Policy, Institutions, and Behavior. She aspires to do environmental public relations.