Making Smiles Happen
Navigating the crowds and congestion of a carnival can be a challenge, especially for people with disabilities. This, along with the expense, can limit family outings.
Zionsville, Indiana, USA
The Lions Step In
In Indiana, the Zionsville Lions wanted to reach out to people with special needs and their families. With that in mind, they decided to open the gates to their annual Fall Festival early and invite some very important people to attend. “Kids just want to be themselves and know that they belong. And we’re going to make them feel that way,” says Phil Howard of the Zionsville Lions Club. “I have a son with Down syndrome, and he is excited about going on the rides with his friends. It is a very special evening.”
Fun for All
The VIP Carnival is the Friday night of the Zionsville annual Fall Festival.
There are lots of smiles. In addition to the rides, VIPs, ranging in age from toddlers to adults, enjoy a free dinner, petting zoo and magic show, plus the fire department mascot and other special guests attend. “We were able to come early and it seemed as if we were celebrating our son’s Down’s syndrome instead of it feeling like a hardship on us. It was a blessing to come when the crowds were low. He had so much fun and was able to share that with his little sister,” said Melissa Bowman.
“We left such an impression with them, but I think they left a bigger impression with us,” commented Leigh Ann Akard, Zionsville Lion.
The 125 Zionsville Lions Club members organize and run the three-day Fall Festival in Lions Park with crowds of approximately 20,000. More than 500 guests attend the VIP carnival, including several from other states. The club has received many heartfelt thank yous. And, the number of smiles is priceless.
Tips and Tools
Make It Happen: How to plan a VIP “very important people” Carnival
Why did the club decide on this project? »
We read an article in the LION Magazine about a similar carnival event. Because several families within our Lions club have special needs relatives, the idea of the VIP carnival suddenly seemed obvious.
Where did you start? »
We contacted the special education departments at six area schools and other local groups (Best Buddies, Arc Rehabilitation, etc.) and sent to them VIP Carnival invitations. News also spread through word of mouth.
How do you operate the carnival? »
We host the carnival on the first evening of our Fall Festival, when crowds are smaller and there are mostly families with younger kids in attendance. VIP registration begins at 5 p.m. We give VIPs and their family members a green wristband to identify who is part of the event and receives free food. We also give VIPs two yellow wristbands, shareable with their attending family, so that they can ride the carnival rides free from 6-8 p.m.
How do you fund the project? »
We partnered with other groups in the community to make the VIP Carnival affordable. Chick-fil-A donated the food and drinks. A local church provided 500 snow cones. Cash donations from Kiwanis, Arc Rehab and individuals allowed us to provide “funny money” for VIPs to use on the games.
Any special words of advice? »
A key to this event is including the VIPs guests in the overall Fall Festival so they and their families feel part of the community. It is also important to talk to the carnival crews to make sure they understand the needs that may be present that night. For example, some allow VIPs to play the carnival games until they win.
"Being able to arrive early when it was less crowded and having caring people watch out for you has been a wonderful experience."
"You truly serve the community well when you get neighbors together and people are shaking hands and sharing a smile."
Zionsville Lions Club
"We just want to thank the Lions club for providing us this opportunity."