Picture your favorite art teacher: the one so full of energy and enthusiasm about the power of art that you were afraid at any minute they might burst into a dance of joy. Everyone has one: that memorable teacher whose passion transforms a normal classroom into a fun-filled, anything-goes space of both security and freedom. A teacher that helps you dig deep inside yourself to create something you never thought possible.  Now extend that concept of what is possible to everything in life, and you’ll begin to understand the worldview of Sara Egorin-Hooper and Susie Swindell, specialists in autism, behavior, and intellectual challenges, with the Baltimore County Public Schools’ Office of Special Education.

Sara and Susie are exactly this type of life-changing teacher who have spent over 30 years focusing on what kids are able to do versus what they cannot.   And for the past 25 years, this dynamic duo have set to work every spring with their dedicated team and multiple volunteers to transform Maryland’s Oregon Ridge Park into a day-long celebration of art and discovery for students with various physical, behavioral, sensory, learning and communication challenges together with their peers. Known as The Very Special Arts Festival, this popular event is concrete proof of Sara and Susie’s belief that, “everyone is an artist” and showcases the power of inclusive opportunities that allow individuals to show what they are able to do.

The Very Special Arts Festival, started by the Kennedy Family over 30 years ago, is now celebrated in cities all across the country. For many years the festival was exclusively for kids with special needs, but in the early nineties was expanded to be more inclusive. Each year attendance has grown at Maryland’s only remaining Very Special Arts Festival, and last year 2,800 people, from nearly all 173 schools and programs in Baltimore County, visited Oregon Ridge Park to take part in the popular day-long event.

Image of two women Sara and Susie smiling behind flowers

“The day is pure joy,” says Sara (left in photo), and the staff work hard to make good on the promise. Busloads of children arrive and are first greeted by a troupe of performers on stilts. The wonder continues as clowns, jugglers, and volunteers handing out balloons wander through the crowd, delighting visitors young and old. A hula-hoop craftsman roams the crowd and gets people who have never hula hooped before shaking their hips. Everywhere you turn, children are involved and interacting. As Susie explains, “We have everything from karaoke to face painting and temporary tattoos, to over 25 booths for make and take crafts.”  All of which are designed to maximize the involvement of all children -be it as individuals or in collaboration with their friends, teachers, and parents.

A popular stop is Joe Corbi’s ‘Edible Art’ Cookie and Pizza Stand where the art lasts only as long as it takes to eat. Cobi’s donates a 1,000 pizzas and cookies and then lets the children decorate and bake them on site.  The notion of ‘breaking bread’ together is carried throughout over 10 acres that are devoted to the Festival.   From a fleet of gourmet food trucks, to good old-fashioned packed picnics on the lawn,  visitors from schools across Baltimore County and beyond, and the community at-large, are able to grab a bite and enjoy any number of student  and professional performances throughout the park – from steel drums, to karaoke, to theater skits and even an all student rock band!

Despite the carnival-like atmosphere, the day is exceptionally well-organized. Guests receive color-coded schedules that let them flow through the park’s four main areas so one area is never too crowded. The four main areas: Performance, Motor, Discovery Lane, and Make and Take Crafts all offer different experiences and forms of expression for their guests to enjoy.

One popular stop is the Film Festival where children have the opportunity to present films they have made in school. In the early years, these were just shown on computer laptop screens, but today students with autism and other developmental differences debut their films on a big screen – replete with free popcorn for the audience from an antique popper.

New for 2014, the Johns Hopkins University, School of Education’s Center for Technology in Education (CTE) will provide an interactive ‘digi-arts’ booth that uses motion-based video gaming and mobile apps to allow children to dance, sing, and create digital artwork.  This joins already established stalwarts of the festival like the Motor Room, run by the Baltimore County Office of Adapted P.E., to encourage movement art; the digital-photography booth; the Zumba line dancing class; and a whole series of “environmental arts” – from learning how to spin wool, to an on-site petting zoo, to designing decorative mother’s day pots.  The list goes on and on for all the wonderful activities offered, all through the generous donation of time and resources from teachers, students, and staff across schools and agencies in Baltimore County.

With all of this stimulation, Sara and Susie put their years of supporting children behaviorally in the classroom to good use, and designed a Sensory Tent to accommodate those children who are easily overwhelmed or just need a break. The Maryland Department of Environmental Services graciously donated an expansive tent that provides a quiet space for those attendees who just need an area to get-away from all of the excitement for a bit.   Occupational and Physical therapists from across the County loan sensory equipment and join a team of teachers, communication experts and behaviorists, who man the tent to help any child who needs some calming support.  This sense of sharing is at the core of the Very Special Arts Festival.

The festival just seems to bring out the best in people. Sara explains, “This is a love fest…You go there and you just feel good.” The community effort is visible everywhere – from the drumming circle run by kids from an alternative school to the Baltimore Symphony Stage where every 10 minutes a new school performs – this day is about a shared purpose.  As Sara points out, “It is all about the smiles on kids’ faces!” And that is accomplished through an incredible display of generosity.

Starting with a committee of 20 core organizers, the festival happens through the efforts of nearly 200 volunteers – from students, teachers, administrators, parents, staff from every level of the school-system– and their families; along with local businesses and agencies.  The festival strives to be financially self-sufficient, seeking grants, donations, and conducting fund-raising, to offset expenses.  The Very Special Arts Festival has also begun to sell notecards featuring student work showcased at the festival, with proceeds returning to fund future festivals.

The theme for this year’s festival will be Peace, Love & Art, though once you have attended The Very Special Arts Festival you will agree that Peace, Love & Art should be the theme every day in every aspect of life as we celebrate possibilities and ABILITIES of all children.