Describing her son as an “amazing 6-year-old boy who happens to have Down syndrome,” Angela Cammarano-Moses was delighted to see KJ play a key role in the Special Needs Kids Day at the Lake event. On Aug. 10, the Villa Rica resident served as a mascot for the offering, which featured a 40-boat parade at Lake Allatoona.
“We are honored to be a part of it and KJ to be its mascot,” Cammarano-Moses said. “This was our second year, and we won't miss them in the future. It is so nice for the kids to enjoy a nice ride, lunch, games and community.
“We enjoy having an event geared for children with disabilities. However by the end of the day, it is easy to see that our children with disabilities are more alike than we are different.”
Founded by Randy West, a committee member of the Great Lake Allatoona Cleanup, the Special Needs Kids Day at the Lake started in 2018 with 15 boats and more than 80 participants. This year’s event drew 250 people, ranging from special needs families, volunteers and boat captains.
Having a “heart for children” with disabilities, West was inspired to create an event like this after dreaming KJ was riding in a boat, waving to him.
“We learned of KJ's exceptionality when I was pregnant due to an irregularity in an ultrasound,” Cammarano-Moses said. “While doctors tend to focus on the negative impacts … this diagnosis has, we choose to look at the positives. We were nervous but excited to see what God had in store for us. KJ changed our entire world. I left my profession to stay home as children with disabilities need early intervention therapy, and I was happy to provide everything he needed to succeed. Now, I coordinate the Paulding County Special Olympics and work as a parent mentor for Paulding County.
“In working with the Paulding County Special Olympics, I met Randy. He has a huge heart for children with disabilities and has been instrumental in designing a wheelchair obstacle course for our event. If Randy hasn't told you, the idea for the Day at the Lake came to him in a dream …. He has done a great job making his dream a reality.”
Posting the idea on Facebook the day after his dream, West received extremely favorable feedback for a future boat parade for special needs children.
“I put my phone number on [the post],” West said. “Over a 24-hour period, I had over 200 phone calls. That phone just kept going and going and going. I was up until past midnight.
“… I had people calling me from Illinois saying, ‘I just wanted to thank you because we’ve never heard of anything like that on a lake,’” he said, noting the first Special Needs Kids Day at the Lake was presented about four weeks after his Facebook post.
Thrilled to see his inspiration take shape and reach numerous families, West knows firsthand what it feels like to have a disability.
“I was in special needs classes through elementary school,” West said. “After middle school, I dropped out because I could not learn.
“I am now 61 and still have a learning disability — reading/writing — as well as I’m on disability from an accident when I was 14,” he said, referring to injuring his back while swinging across a creek. “By the grace of God, I get through every day. I’m sure that some of my reasoning of working with special needs kids [is] because I was one.”
Calling the parade the largest in Lake Allatoona’s history, West said the boat route spanned four city blocks and primarily took place in Bartow. Along with the voyage, participants were treated to pizza, T-shirts, games and three birthday party celebrations. In addition to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and TowBoatU.S. Lake Allatoona, the event received support from various first responder agencies, such as Bartow County Fire Department and Bartow County Sheriff’s Office.
Continuing to inspire West, family friend Devon Munoz took part in the event for the second year.
Now 20, the Dallas resident was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 6 months. In addition to three surgeries, he has received physical, speech and occupational therapies through the years.
“I have known Randy all of my life,” Munoz said. “He is a great family friend that does amazing things for the special needs community. This is my second year [attending Special Needs Kids Day at the Lake]. I'm fairly older than most kids that attend, but I like for them to see that just because you get older doesn't mean you can't still enjoy the things you did when you were younger. Your disability does not define who you are.
“I like meeting new people. The event is getting bigger every year. It's exciting to see more kids and parents able to attend, and more people are coming out using their boats,” he said, adding he would like to “give a big thank you to Randy and all of his team for everything they do to make this event happen every year.”
Echoing his comments, Munoz’s grandmother Patricia Garcia also commends West for his commitment to the special needs community.
“[Randy] has a heart for others and a bigger heart to help special needs kids. He has a picture of Devon, himself and my son Joseph [when] they were fishing on the boat when [my grandson] was little,” she said, adding during the event “you could look at Randy and see the most amazing smile on his face while watching these kids on the boat enjoying themselves. His face was priceless, like these kids’ faces were.”
Attending the event with Munoz’s for the past two years, Garcia shares its benefits are numerous and long-lasting.
“To me it means that my grandson gets to be out having fun, and he’s meeting other people that care so much,” she said. “Volunteers help him get on the boat, and he finds that people do care about who he is as a person no matter what disability you have. He has made new friends and has kept in touch with them on Facebook.
“What I love about the event is the people that volunteer and give of their time, and knowing it’s all for these kids and parents get a little support from other people. What I enjoy the most is seeing my grandson just laugh and smile, like there’s not a care in the world.”