Popular annual event for disabled may cease

The region's biggest annual gathering of people with disabilities is in danger of being canceled for the first time in its 29-year history, because of a plummet in funding.

Organizers of the Sept. 13 Picnic for the Disabled are blaming the nation's slumping economy, which they say has caused a 90 percent drop in donations.

It takes about $5,000 to stage the picnic, which has attracted as many as 1,200 people, said Barry Dodd, vice chairman of Physically Disabled Adults Inc., the event sponsor. But as of now, the group has only $500, not enough even to cover the $600 insurance bill, he said.

“For many of the disabled in this county, this is the big social event of the year,” said Dodd, who raised a lot of that $500 by asking for donations outside a department store. “Many live in nursing homes and they just don't get out much, at least not as a large group. It's quite moving to see that many together in one room.”

One donor has offered $2,000 – if Physically Disabled Adults can find $2,000 in matching funds. That's why the nonprofit group recently petitioned Mecklenburg County commissioners for a $1,000 donation. However, the commissioners won't meet again until Sept. 13, which might be too late. “It's looking 50-50 that we'll have to cancel,” Dodd said.

That would bring to an end an event that began in 1979, when a Charlotte police officer, the late Ben Davis, and his wife, Patsy, invited 25 disabled people to a picnic at Freedom Park. The Davises continued the event for more than a decade, and it grew by dozens, then hundreds.

Physically Disabled Adults took over 16 years ago, and has seen attendance bounce up and down, depending on publicity. Last year, 700 came to the Marion Diehl Center, where food, games and entertainment were offered at no cost.

Randy Cornell, treasurer for Physically Disabled Adults, notes that much of the food is donated, as well as the labor, including a lot of help from the Fraternal Order of Police. What costs, he says, is the event's popular tradition of trying to give every disabled attendee something to take home.

“We have door prizes, bingo prizes, and we even pack up the leftover food and give it away at the end of the day,” says Cornell. “There's just something about the smiles you see when some kid from a group home wins a TV or a stereo. Once you see that smile, you understand.

“For a kid like that, a stereo is priceless. They'll sit at the bingo table for hours to try and win one.”