Pastor Adam Farley was drenched head to toe after helping a child climb a giant blue water slide. The child needed a hand climbing the plastic ladder, and by the time he got up there, he had just one way down.
“I figured I might as well,” he said with a laugh.
He paced all around the Vital Church campus in Oviedo, where several water slides, a water hockey rink, a dunk tank and other attractions were set up for Soaked 2021. The event raised thousands of dollars on Saturday for people with special needs — who Farley and others there call “VIPs” — the largest of any of the previous four events after 175 families signed up to participate. By noon, the event had raised at least $7,000, partly from donations and a silent auction staged at the campus.
The event was put on standby the previous two years: in 2019 as the church was in the middle of a search for its new pastor before appointing Farley and because of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The church collaborated with Nathaniel’s Hope, a local nonprofit that puts on events for children with special needs, to spread the word in the community and to put on a day of summer fun, but the record turnout still came as a surprise.
“It was a little bit by design and a little bit by divine,” Farley said.
For people like Carson Anderson, a 22-year-old with autism, Saturday was a godsend after more than a year indoors and away from friends. His mother, Diana, said she was able to make up for some the lack of physical interaction with online video calls, but it wasn’t the same.
So being able to interact publicly again and inside an environment away from typical stigmas people with special needs often face was a much-needed return to normalcy.
“The pandemic was an abstract concept [to him], so he didn’t understand it,” she said. “I think for a lot of special needs families ... we got isolated and got away from our support network, and you need those other parents.”
But in the year since COVID-19 broke out in Central Florida and elsewhere, Nathaniel’s Hope co-founder Tim Kuck didn’t stop thinking about how to reinvent its usually scheduled events.
For instance, the nonprofit’s “Make ’M Smile” event typically held at Lake Eola had to be changed last year and this year to what Kuck called a “smile-fari” — a trip to the Wild Florida Safari Drive-thru Park in Kenansville where 1,500 cars attended in June.
“We did what we could, even with COVID going on, to try to make a difference,” said Kuck, whose son, Nathaniel, died in 2001 at 4 after being diagnosed with several debilitating conditions at birth.
Farley, whose church has been collaborating with Nathaniel’s Hope for the past seven years on a variety of programs like Buddy Break, said it was encouraging to see people come out and support the families of people with special needs.
In the first hour of the event, families gathered for what was dubbed a “Magic Hour,” where it was only the “VIPs” with their families. By 11 a.m., Soaked 2021 was opened to the rest of the public.
“When given the opportunity, celebrate those that we perceive as ‘special needs.’ Don’t throw that stigma on them,” Farley said. “They’re VIPs — they’re our most valuable and important people. There is more to them than they are given credit for.”