The Good Fight

The Friendliest Place On Earth

What better way to kick off a hot August day than a day at Morgan's Wonderland, the world's first amusement park designed by and for people with special needs?

Morgan’s Wonderland in San Antonio, Texas, is the first theme park of its kind in the world to be designed for people with special needs. This summer, the organization set another world record, opening Morgan’s Inspiration Island, the first fully accessible waterpark.

A nonprofit organization that is bolstered by corporate and community sponsorships as well as a significant base of volunteers, Morgan’s Wonderland has always given free admission to guests with special needs—no questions asked—and hires a significant number of staff members with disabilities.

That sets the stage for people experiencing some things for the first time—riding a ferris wheel or a carousel, even the simple pleasure of swinging on a swing—and getting to do so among friends and family members.

The excitement is palpable. Folks spent a day at Morgan’s Wonderland and its brand new waterpark to capture a slice of that joy.

Photo: Cynthia J. Drake.

“Being here is not like other places. It has diversity and it’s for everybody. They’re really friendly here, and the staff will help you out.”

— Gardenia Ariza of Houston, mother of two, who has suffered complications following two knee replacement surgeries and has been confined to a wheelchair off and on for a year

Photo: Cynthia J. Drake.

The rides at Morgan’s Wonderland, including a ferris wheel, carousel, train, swings and these off-road adventure cars, are all equipped for wheelchairs.

Photo: Cynthia J. Drake.

“I love it. There’s so much to do, so many rides. I like the ones that go up and down and around the best, like the ferris wheel.”

Has it been a long time since you’ve been able to go on rides?

“Well, I can now!”

— Ray Longserre, who traveled with a group of residents from a memory care facility in San Antonio.

Photo: Cynthia J. Drake

“This has been far and away the most rewarding job I’ve ever had.”

I’m sure you experience a lot of powerful moments here.

“You know where Ground Zero is? The swings. To see someone swinging for the first time, and seeing a mom be able to push her child on the swing for the first time … it gets you choked up every time.”

— Dominic Fournier, assistant general manager

Photo: Cynthia J. Drake

“It’s very welcoming to the kids with special needs like my sister who has Down syndrome. My sister really likes the cars.”

— Lizjalet Rodriguez, 15, (right), with sister Stephanie Rodriguez, 11, of Houston

Photo: Cynthia J. Drake

“This is my second year volunteering here with my son Brendan through the Young Men’s Service League, a mother/son organization. My son and I did 35 volunteer hours last year and we just love it, it’s a great experience. You get to see people with disabilities and children who don’t have disabilities interacting with one another. There really are not a lot of other opportunities for that. It’s such a special place.”

— Gretchen Herrmann of San Antonio

Photo: Cynthia J. Drake

“We surprised them. They kept asking, ‘Where are we going, Mom? Where are we going?’ and when we pulled into the parking lot they asked, ‘Is this Disney World?’ It kind of felt like it, being in a big theme park but without the crowds. And it doesn’t exclude anyone — everyone is welcome.”

—  The Reagor family, Montae, Rachel, Ryan and Riley, of Mansfield, Texas

Photo: Cynthia J. Drake

Donna Brandel, a speech therapist, was visiting Morgan’s Wonderland with her nephew Logan, 12, and client Jonathan Teague of Pflugerville.

Brandel: “We really liked reading Morgan’s story—Logan is a fact guy—and I particularly like the special needs staff.”

Teague: “I like all the water parts here and the carousel and all the rides.”

Photo: Cynthia J. Drake

Morgan Hartman, the namesake of Morgan’s Wonderland inspired her parents Gordon and Maggie Hartman to create the theme park in 2005, following a vacation where couple saw that other kids weren’t interested in interacting with their daughter because of her physical and cognitive challenges. Their dream was to create a truly inclusive, welcoming environment for everyone.

Photo: Cynthia J. Drake

“The environment is very inclusive especially for kids with special needs. We don’t feel judged—you feel free, I guess. There’s so many things for kids to do. We come here every week.”

— Meribeth Patterson (right), with her 4-year-old sister Ruby Patterson of Wimberley, Texas

Photo: Cynthia J. Drake

About one-third of Morgan’s Wonderland staff members have special needs themselves. Administrators say this is an important aspect of “walking the talk” and providing positive role modeling examples for children with disabilities to see people like themselves in leadership roles.

What do you like best about your job?

“The little kids—I just like their enthusiasm. Because being disabled myself, I like how I can see disabled kids not only having fun, but being able to interact with other people. Growing up with spina bifida I was always teased a lot being in a wheelchair. … I have to say my favorite moment working here was when I first started working with operations and two little boys stood in front of me, and I asked them, ‘You want a ride?’ and I just gave them a ride around the park.”

— Connie Sauceda, 21, of San Antonio, a staff member since March. Morgan’s Wonderland is her first job.

Photo: Cynthia J. Drake

Morgan’s Wonderland worked with researchers from the University of Pittsburgh to design a brand new waterproof wheelchair that uses compressed air instead of batteries. It contains no electronic components so that it can be fully submerged in water.

Sam Carver, 16, visited Morgan’s Inspiration Island with his parents, Denise Johnson and Darin Johnson from Wentzville, Missouri. Carver was among the first to try out the new chairs, wheeling it around the oversized splash pads at Morgan’s Inspiration Island, getting a refreshing soak on the 100-degree day. (The wheelchair isn’t pictured here, as it had to be recharged with an air compressor).

How did it feel, Sam? Does the chair feel like the one you’re used to?

Sam: “Yes, it felt great. My favorite thing was to wheel around and feel independent and see the new sites.”

Denise: “Does it make you feel grown up? That is exactly what he wants—he doesn’t want to be with his parents. Typical for his age!”

The Good Fight

Being Miss Amazing

This pageant teaches young women with disabilities about performance, ambassadorship, and sisterhood. Not to mention looking great in a gown.

Beauty pageants conjure images of perpetually smiling, picture-perfect women in bikinis or formalwear, nary a wheelchair or surgical scar in sight. But Jordan Somer has given traditional pageants a makeover with her nonprofit organization Miss Amazing, which organizes pageants to empower and celebrate girls and women with disabilities, both visible and otherwise.

Since launching in 2007, the organization has expanded to 32 states, reaching 1,700 girls and women to date (any person with a disability who identifies as female is eligible). It will host its fifth national pageant this August.

As a kid, Somer volunteered in food pantries and nursing homes, but the celebratory environment of Special Olympics really made an impression on her. “I knew that this is a community that I wanted to be involved with a little bit more,” says Somer, who’s now 23 and a graduate of New York University.

Photo: Jordan Somer

While a high school freshman a decade ago back in Omaha, Nebraska, Somer planned and executed her first Miss Amazing pageant with 15 participants. “It was really humble,” she remembers. “We had a potluck dinner, and all of the volunteers were personal connections of mine. But the spirit of it remains in our program today.”

After Teen Nickelodeon featured Somer and Miss Amazing in a special segment and Pepsi-Cola provided a $25,000 grant, Somer scaled up Miss Amazing to other cities and filed for nonprofit status, which is received in 2011.

The Miss Amazing pageants now held across the country are all volunteer-run, annual events. “We’ve taken the aspects of pageantry like performance, ambassadorship and sisterhood, and made them open and available for girls and women with disabilities,” Somer explains.

We’ve taken  aspects of pageantry like performance, ambassadorship and sisterhood, and made them available for women with disabilities.

Participants get paired up with a buddy (who may or may not have a disability) who helps guide them through the pageant process. Local salons provide volunteer hair and makeup services to make participants feel extra special (but Somer is quick to point out that hair and makeup are optional).

During the day, participants complete a one-on-one interview with judges. The night of the pageant, they introduce themselves onstage to the audience. “They step in front of stage and have an experience to public speak and share with the audience how they define themselves,” Somer says. “The gown portion is extremely important for girls and women who don’t use words to communicate.” The optional talent portion is not judged, but many participants enjoy the chance to strut their stuff by singing, dancing, even presenting poetry or art or displaying sign language skills.

Photo: Jordan Somer

In our “every kid gets a trophy” culture, one might expect that every Miss Amazing participant goes home a winner. Not exactly. “We don’t believe they should be exempt from the experience of competition,” Somer says. “We crown every one of the participants as princesses to have that memento of what they’ve all accomplished onstage, but in each of the six age divisions, the points that the judges have given all of the participants are averaged to find the representative in each of those age divisions.” State-level winners continue to the national event, and Miss Amazing names one runner-up in each division just in case.

After her first pageant in 2015, Tiffani Johnson, age 23, was crowned 2015 Iowa Miss Amazing Jr Miss Queen and then 2015 National Miss Amazing Jr Miss Queen. Johnson, who has Down’s syndrome, says she was overwhelmed and proud when she won her national title. “I feel like I can do anything if I put my mind to it,” she adds.

The gown portion is extremely important for girls and women who don’t use words to communicate.

Johnson’s mother Christy says Miss Amazing has helped build her daughter’s confidence. “The whole thing is a bonding experience,” she says. “There are girls who are maybe lower functioning than she is, and she just gets this mother feeling that kicks in with her. It’s really amazing watching her with the group of girls.”

Johnson still FaceTimes with some of the friends she’s made through Miss Amazing. She’s also had several speaking engagements, including a fundraising gala for GiGi’s Playhouse where she helped sell a record number of raffle tickets. “Their strategy was no one would tell Tiffani no,” Christy adds.

Photo: Jordan Somer

Rhode Island seventeen-year-old Rachel Arruda was crowned the 2016 National Miss Amazing Teen. “I didn’t go to nationals expecting to win,” she says. “I just went to have fun and I love dressing up, so it was going to be fun and I’d meet new people.”

Arruda recently spoke at the Massachusetts state pageant about the challenges of invisible disabilities. “I have Asperger’s syndrome and you can’t always tell when somebody has a disability,” she says. “It’s important to represent that people can have struggles even if you can’t see them and that no disability is necessarily harder than one or the other.”

It’s important to represent that people can have struggles even if you can’t see them and that no disability is necessarily harder than one or the other.

Because Arruda’s Asperger’s isn’t as visible as other disabilities, teachers don’t always know to make accommodations and help her stay organized. Or others may not realize that when she says what’s she’s thinking, it’s because she admittedly doesn’t have a great filter, not because she’s being rude, Arruda adds.

“It’s really interesting to see how different people—people that have disabilities and people who don’t have disabilities—how we can all come together and have a great time and form great friendships,” Arruda says.

Photo: Jordan Somer

Beyond the outward benefit of new friendships, Somer says the pageant has also helped people reflect inward. “[It’s] suggested to many of the participants that you can accomplish greatness, you have huge potential,” she says. “A lot of the participants who’ve been involved in the program have gone out and started a community project and have gained a deeper understanding of what their self worth is.”