As a kid, I loved carnival games. If the idea of throwing away money didn’t offend me so much, I would still participate in ski-ball, ring toss, and that game where you squirt water out of a plastic pistol onto a target to get a toy horse to run. I won’t even get into the allure of artery-clogging fried carnival food which, as an adult, I still can’t pass up.
While looking for places in Utah where we could help, I ran across a call for volunteers for the Work Activity Center’s carnival-themed client appreciation day. They had my attention. I briefly looked up what they do, and they had my heart. I signed up immediately.
Since 1958, Utah's Work Activity Center has been enriching the lives of people with disabilities by "actively providing opportunities for independence and individual growth." That's a simple statement which hardly does justice to everyting they do. To get a better idea of their involvement, check out all they do here, here, here, and here. Oh, and here. These are amazing people.
Following a convoy of buses that were delivering participants to this once-a-year event, we pulled in to the parking lot, the van covered in the dust we brought up from southern Utah's desert.
We joined a group of volunteers gathered in a meeting room, and were briefed on the days events and activities. There were indoor activities where the clients could enjoy balloon animals or face-painting, and outside, there were stations set up for popcorn, snow cones, cotton candy, fishing for rubber duckies, a bean bag catapult (John-Michael's assignment), basketball shoot-out (my booth), and even the requisite dunk-tank (which, typically sweat soaked, JM was eyeing wistfully).
Before the carnival began, volunteers were given a brief amount of time to familiarize ourselves with the stations. Accompanied by Justin Timberlake's promises to rock our bodies, we waited for the carnival to begin. The doors finally opened, and a rush of enthusiasm, shouts, smiles, and excitement washed over the parking lot that had lovingly been converted into a carnival.
I was privileged to witness the obviously caring and well-trained staff and regular volunteers, as they provided varying levels of support, dependent on the needs of each individual. With every new person that came to my booth, a unique and inspiring interaction took place. Seeing the joy and eagerness on many of the faces of those participating was rewarding. I couldn’t stop smiling. They couldn't stop smiling. That's the thing with carnivals. As long as they are clown-free, everyone seems to have a great time.
As I handed out key-chain prizes when the participant finished their turn, many times I would get hugs, I received a kiss on the cheek, and in the ultimate display of gratitude and generosity, someone even offered to share their snow-cone with me.
The day seemed to end as quickly as it began. The clients and most of the staff moved inside for the afternoon pizza and cookie party, and the live band that would be performing later on.
Outside, we began to break down tents, put away tables and games, and drain the dunk-tank; erasing any sign of a carnival, and leaving the lot once again ready to welcome the afternoon buses.
Traveling and living a minimalist lifestyle are blissfully enriching. You have time for contemplation and introspection. However, it doesn't leave you immune to the pain, cruelty, and inhumanity that is all around us. Sometimes it just means you have more time to think about it. After yet another week of news reports that made my stomach and head hurt, and sometimes left me feeling angry, helpless, and sad, having this day where I could see people filled with compassion and understanding for others truly helped to bring some balance.
Knowing there are people that find joy in the experiences that life has to offer, no matter how small or simple, despite the seemingly insurmountable struggles or challenges they face is true inspiration. On a otherwise unremarkable day in Utah, surrounded by strangers, I found hope. Surrounded by people that don’t have hate in their hearts and accept others as they are, no matter their disabilities, color, age, race, nationality, or whatever. They welcome all, especially strangers, and offer them love, friendship, and maybe even a snow cone.
This is what I need to see more of, maybe even in the news.