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The Journal Gazette

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Ben Jones, 16, of Musical Buddies claps during the group's performance on the main stage Saturday at the ninth annual disAbilities Expo at Memorial Coliseum.

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Ian Wallace with Mark’s Ark Animal Show holds a bearded dragon as he answers questions from Jessalyn Adams, 5, at Saturday’s expo.

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Mary Walters, left, enjoys petting a bearded dragon that Ian Wallace from Mark's Ark Animal Show is holding at the 9th Annual disAbilities Expo at Memorial Coliseum Saturday.

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Jamiah Caley, 19, dances at Memorial Coliseum’s Sports Center during Saturday’s ninth annual disAbilities Expo. The expo, hosted AWS Foundation, attracted a record 120 exhibitors, offering services such as training emotional support dogs and family conflict resolution, as well as products to help people with physical disabilities. See story on Page 1C.

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette From left: Musical Buddies' Ben Jones, 16, Alexis Mackeprang, 17, and Ashley Bowman, 20, sing on the main stage at the 9th Annual disAbilities Expo at Memorial Coliseum Saturday.

Sunday, May 13, 2018 1:00 am

Resources, fun mix at disAbilities Expo

Exhibitors line aisles at Coliseum offering support for families

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

Misty Wilson is a 21st-century mom.

The Fort Wayne woman turned to Google to find support for her son, who has been diagnosed with Sotos syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes developmental delays and excessive growth in a child's early years. Corbin, 14, already towers over his mother. 

But those internet searches haven't always paid off. Wilson's visit to the website for Turnstone Center for Children and Adults with Disabilities, for example, produced lots of photos of people in wheelchairs. She assumed that meant the local nonprofit didn't have anything to offer Corbin.

On Saturday, Wilson was thrilled to find out how wrong she was.

Wilson and her son were among more than 1,500 people expected to attend the ninth annual disAbilities Expo at Memorial Coliseum. The free event, hosted by AWS Foundation, also attracted a record 120 exhibitors.

“I almost felt lost for all these years on where I can get help,” Wilson said, adding that she fought back tears as she visited the Turnstone booth. “I'm just so happy there are so many resources here. I'm going to get so much help.”

That's exactly why the one-day, annual expo was created, according to Vicki Lee Johnson, a planning committee member and AWS Foundation's marketing manager. The event was designed to be inclusive for people of all ages and abilities.

The expo offered information about products and services for people with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, seizure disorders, brain injuries and Down syndrome. 

Those were just the beginning.

Other booths shared information about trained emotional support dogs, family conflict resolution training, bicycles adapted for people with limited physical abilities, fighting housing discrimination and exploring faith for people with disabilities.

“We always refer to it as the annual one-stop shop,” Johnson said. “Everything is in one place.”

Entertainment is also provided. One area of the convention floor was set aside for a clinic in tennis adapted for people with physical disabilities. Another section had a stage where choirs, dancers and other groups performed throughout the day.

“AWS Foundation underwrites the cost,” Johnson said. “It's really a gift to the community.”

Getting so many providers in one place at one time creates an unintended bonus, she added. Various local nonprofits learn about each other's services, allowing them to refer clients to other sources for assistance on challenges their organizations don't address.

“It's not a competition,” she said. “It really is a community, a support community.”

No one has to convince Carrie Schoettmer of the benefits. She attended this year, the third time, with her boyfriend, Blake Urshel, who has suffered two traumatic brain injuries.

Each time they visit the expo, Schoettmer said, they bring along a friend who has never been but could use the information offered. This year, it was a friend with an autistic son.

In previous years, Urshel was able to pick up information about services that supported him when he moved out of his parents' house. The couple has also learned about music therapy and is looking to get his therapy dog certified.

This year, they were exploring potential complications that can follow brain injuries. Schoettmer said it's possible that Urshel will develop epilepsy.

“It helps us prepare for the future,” she said, adding that his future might include adult daycare. “We've found it's better to plan ahead. You always prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”

Families who don't need these types of services are only one car accident or parent's stroke away from desperately needing them, Schoettmer added.

Sarah Kamin was on the other side of the table. The family coach with the University of Notre Dame Center for Children and Families said this is the first year the SPARC program has been available locally. The name is short for Supporting Parent-Adolescent Relationships and Communication.

The program trains families with one child with disabilities and one typically developing teen how to deal with conflict. Kamin said the typically developing teen is often at risk in such families because their needs can be overlooked.

“It's really nice to have a venue to find families that are interested in our work,” she said from her seat in one of the booths.

As Wilson talked about her quest to find support for her son with Sotos syndrome, her gaze settled on a booth offering leg braces. She wondered aloud whether Corbin's fast-growing legs could use some extra support.

Also on Wilson's to-do list early Saturday afternoon were visits to booths with information about physical therapy and occupational therapy providers.

But those stops would have to wait until after they visited the booth for Camp Red Cedar, a local camp whose offerings include programs for people with disabilities. The low counselor-to-camper ratio and handicapped-accessible cabins allow children with disabilities to safely experience the outdoors.

Corbin attended previously and loved it. When he heard the Disabilities Expo advertised on the radio, he petitioned her to go so they could pick up information about Camp Red Cedar.

His mom fondly recalled his excitement after his stay there: “It was awesome.”