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West Orange Times & Observer Wednesday, Apr. 11, 2018 5 months ago

Walk for Autism Festival will benefit Dr. Phillips High School's Special Hearts Farm

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The farm gives Dr. Phillips High students with autism and other disabilities an opportunity to learn a variety of skills.
by: Eric Gutierrez Staff Writer

Dr. Phillips High School will honor Autism Awareness month Saturday, April 14, with its Walk for Autism Festival.

“The autism walk that we’re having … helps raise money and supports our Special Hearts Farm, which is our on-campus job site for students with autism and intellectual disabilities,” said Kathy Meena, who teaches students with autism and intellectual disabilities at DPHS. 

In addition to raising money for the Special Hearts Farm, the purpose of the walk is to help raise awareness for individuals with autism and intellectual disabilities.

The festival begins at 9 a.m. and will be held at the Bill Spoone stadium. The cost is $5 to participate in the walk. Shirts will be available for $20, and donations will be accepted to benefit the farm. 

The event is organized by the schools Youth PALS club. PALS stands for “Providing Autism Links and Support.” The PALS program is sponsored by the University of Central Florida Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD).

Attendees will enjoy a variety of vendors, food trucks, coffee and doughnuts from Krispy Kreme, Papa John’s pizza, bounce houses, a petting zoo of animals from the Special Hearts Farm and a performance of a shortened version of “The Lion King” featuring theater students and students with autism and intellectual disabilities, Meena said.

“A lot of the vendors are companies that specialize in serving individuals with autism,” Meena said. “The theater magnet students actually mentored and have taught our kids with autism and intellectual disabilities ‘The Lion King.’ ... We’ll be performing four songs and a couple of speaking parts. We’ll do that right at the beginning of the walk after the national anthem.”

In addition to the vendors, the Special Hearts Farm will be selling handmade goats-milk soap and rustic signs. The soaps come in a variety of scents and cost $5 each. Additionally, members will be selling special soaps shaped as a puzzle piece in honor of Autism Awareness Month, Meena said.

The soaps and signs are made by DPHS students with autism and intellectual disabilities as part of the farm. Selling the soaps and the signs is a way to teach the students the business side of farming, Meena said.

The farm, now in its fourth year, gives Meena’s students a meaningful task during the school day and has gained attention support from the community. 

“We’ve had lot of guests (who) have come to see and tour the farm,” Meena said. “We’ve had our School Board member, Pam Gould (tour the farm), and she’s become a big supporter of our farm. … She’s brought a lot of folks to see the farm.”

Although farm has had success at DPHS, Meena worries about what lies ahead for her students after they graduate.

“What we really need is an overall exposure on the lack of programs for kids with autism and intellectual disabilities (offering) meaningful job experiences,” Meena said. “Our main concern is … what’s going to happen to them when they age out? So, we really want to bring awareness not only to autism but (also) to the fact that we need to continue as a community to find meaningful experiences for them to do and opportunities once they age out of the public school system.”

Eric Gutierrez is a staff writer with the West Orange Times & Observer and Windermere Observer. He graduated from the University of Central Florida in 2015 with a dual degree in Journalism and Political Science. Got a story idea? Contact Eric at...

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