An event that took over a year to put together finally reached fruition on Saturday September 18, 2010.
At the Muslim American Society (MAS) center, children could be seen jumping on moon bounces, riding ponies, blowing bubbles, bowling, playing in the waterpool, and getting their faces painted. The first of its kind, the celebration was one for children with special needs.
Rasha Abulohom, the organizer, had wanted to have an Eid event specifically for special needs children for a very long time. She had always wanted her brother Mohammad, 10, who has Autism, to enjoy the Eid day like other children. “Even though I take Mohammed to the Eid prayer, I can’t take him to the convention center or to Eid celebrations because it is really difficult. People are not understanding; you have to constantly explain yourself and explain the child’s behavior. I don’t remember ever seeing any families with special needs children at any Eid events and I’m sure it’s because it’s overwhelming for the parents.”
Through the MAS Youth Give program, whose motto is “we serve the Creator by serving His creations,” Abulohom along with other MYG organizers began planning by first reaching out to organizations to help her find Muslim families with special needs children. Around 36 children with special needs RSVP’d, and 30 attended. The event was also sponsored by EquallyAble foundation, ADAMS center, Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center, Add-A-Bounce.com, HawaDC.com, and Islamic Relief.
In addition to the outdoor games, stations were set up inside the center where special needs children designed cupcakes, ate pizza, paint, and played with playdough amongst other activities. Volunteers gave the children the one-on-one attention at every station.
“The reason why we had the sandbox and the waterpool for example is because they are sensory activities. Kids with special needs love sensory activities. The ideas came from things Muhammad likes to do and from a special Ed teacher. We also had activities, such as painting, which parents probably wouldn’t have for their children at home because it requires too much effort.”
Abulohom wanted to incorporate Islamic themes into the activities. “That’s why we had the painting station where kids painted a crescent with a star” she said.
Additionally, Dawud Abdulrahman led the Duhr prayer and recited all the steps out loud for the children, then read a duaa. “The prayer was also meant for the parents to prompt their children to show them how to pray” said Abulohom.
“Allah will not punish these children for anything. But just because they don’t need to learn Quran or pray, doesn’t mean we don’t teach them and make them feel that they are a part of the community.”
Parents of special needs children were overjoyed with the program. “This is the first time they do something for special needs kids. It’s fantastic to have this opportunity for them to celebrate Eid,” said Sahar Qudsi, mother of a special needs son. Many parents echoed her sentiments. “This is the first time I see the Muslim community recognize the disabled part of the community and I hope other centers follow the example of MAS. I salute MAS for taking initiative and having this special day” said Abdallah Arifi Osman, whose son Sufyan, 11, has Autism.
The program “is not just for the kids, it is also for the adults, the families, and even for parents who don’t have children with disabilities, in order for them to be aware and prepared as there has been a rise in the cases of Autism in the past decade. It’s also for them to educate their children how to deal with special needs kids, to be nice, not to call them “weirdos” and not to label them,” said Osman.
At the event, there were children with Down syndrome, Autism, speech impairment, developmental delay, physical disability, intellectual disability, cerebral palsy, and blindness.
“I hope next Eid we will have more participants. I encourage every parent who has a special needs child to attend next time” said Qudsi.
Wandira Shierloh, a non-Muslim parent, heard about the event through the Parents of Autistic Children (POAC) listserv. She brought her son Matthew, 6, who has Autism and Fragile X Syndrome to enjoy the day. “He’s having a wonderful time. People are really nice…donating their time for children with disabilities. He’s enjoying everything sensory. They thought of everything possible for the children,” said Shierloh.
Abulohom received an outpour of support and appreciation both before and after the event was held. “I had parents that called me and emailed me thanking me. Their emails were beautiful, they said: “Thank you for acknowledging our presence… making us feel like we exist.” These emails kept me going and touched my heart. The emails and calls I got after the event makes me want to do more for them. They’re a minority but they deserve it.”