With a picturesque pastel blue sky providing the perfect backdrop, and the sounds of giggles and gasps supplying a flawless soundtrack, 14-year old Madison Peterman attended her first Joyful Hearts Easter Egg Hunt March 29 at Concord’s Rocky River Church.
Kneeling in the spring grass beside her family, Madison was excited about the task at hand. “I have a basket full of eggs,” Madison declared.
Prying open a dozen-or-so plastic eggs one-by-one, Madison was thrilled with the bounty before her. Candy, tiny toys and restaurant gift certificates were among the treasures.
Madison, who has autism, was one of more than 200 attendees with special needs at the March 29 event. No one left disappointed.
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“I think it was a huge success,” said Sherry Peele, Joyful Hearts founder and executive director. “You see smiles on everyone’s faces. They can’t go anywhere else where there’s an egg hunt just for them. There’s no pushing and everyone shares.”
Joyful Hearts is a nonprofit that hosts events for people with special needs. It was created out of a single occasion that has become its signature annual event: JOYPROM, in which people, high school age and older, dress in their tuxes and gowns and enjoy dancing and socializing.
In 2011, Peele was a member of University City Fellowship Church (now Venture Church) when its pastor asked the congregation to hold a party for a specified group in the community. Last month’s JOYPROM drew 1,275 participants and 400 volunteers.
In 2013, Joyful Hearts surveyed attendees’ family members about what they felt the special-needs community was missing. Overwhelmingly, they said activities and events.
Joyful Hearts has since hosted semimonthly events including ice cream socials, fall festivals, health and safety days and breakfasts with Santa. Peele says Joyful Hearts served more than 2,000 people in 2014 alone.
Financial support for the events and activities comes from private donations; semimonthly fundraisers have included bunko games, a womanless beauty pageant and a Zumbathon. A golf tournament last year raised $7,000.
Events are free and open to people of all ages, except for JOYPROM. Joyful Heart events draw participants from mostly Cabarrus, Mecklenburg, Gaston, and Stanly counties. But JOYPROM has drawn people from as far as Massachusetts, Indiana and Georgia.
“(The special-needs community) is the most caring, loving, honest community that you will ever be a part of,” said Peele. “They don’t know anger. They don’t get mad at you. They love you unconditionally. They are always happy. When you think you have it rough, you should hang out with the special needs community and they are all happy all the time.”
At last week’s Easter egg hunt, attendees were divided into three age groups and invited scooped up eggs, 3,500 in all, in a ribboned-off section of Rocky River Church’s spacious front yard.
About a dozen Easter-themed games provided entertainment before, after, and in-between egg searches. Participants enjoyed such novelty pastimes as the carrot toss, duck bowl and the egg shake.
“What blows us away is the volunteers,” said Kara Rosenberg, Madison Peterman’s mother. “To see these teenagers giving up their time is amazing. It’s important for Madison to be out here with them.”
Groups from Central Cabarrus and Jay M. Robinson high schools helped hide eggs and man the game stations. Harrisburg resident Wendy Perez, 13, assisted children with coloring sheets.
“I think it’s a nice thing to do,” said Wendy. “I love doing community service overall. I’ve met a lot of people with special needs and I like to help out.”
When the egg-hunting was nearly complete, Peele led the hunters through several group dances. They shuffled and swayed to tunes including “The Chicken Dance,” the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” and “Gangnam Style.”
That’s when 30-year old Dusty DeJarnette had the most fun. He broke away from his newspaper interview and pulled his mother to the dance area, leaving his father to speak for him.
“It’s all about the kids,” said Martin DeJarnette. “Dusty loves music. The kids just have a blast when there’s music involved.”
Joe Habina is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Joe? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.