Tuesdays are relatively quiet at Children’s Fairyland during the winter, with just a skeleton crew on the job. But since last October, Tuesdays have become decidedly more delightful thanks to Reggie, Brian, Kala, Thomas, Bryce, Maddy, Tanas, Savio, Omar, Billy and Ben. They parade by my office, single file, at 10 a.m., with broad smiles and “good mornings” as they prepare to offer their considerable volunteer talents to our park.
They are members of the Alameda Adult Transition program: students between the ages of 18 and 21 with mild to severe developmental disabilities who are developing their working and living skills. Accompanying them is teacher Kaitlin Rupido, who told me the Fairyland work day is so special that the group members have to “earn” the outing. None of them has ever blown the opportunity.
Kaitlin’s mostly autistic clients benefit from planning the bus route here, purchasing transit passes, checking in, working as a team and accomplishing all types of tasks.
Our animals are the biggest draw. All of the students are animal lovers, and they often tell Kaitlin that working in our animal department is the best part of their week. “Animals have no expectations, and they do something that people just can’t,” said Kaitlin. “It’s really therapeutic for our students.”
For Omar, the group’s resident cowboy, it’s even more than that. He dreams of someday working on a ranch, and he never arrives without his cowboy hat. When he found out that Fairyland animal caretaker Jamie Hammer is a real cowgirl, he was elated. He urged her to bring her cowgirl hat the following Tuesday. When she did, he proceeded to serenade her with country music songs. “He just stole my heart,” Jamie said.
Maddy, another member of the group, has had a hard time coming out of her shell. Around the animals, though, she feels comfortable and open. “It lifts her up for the whole week,” says Kaitlin.
Bryce is obsessed with Disney and fairytales, so he’s in his element at Fairyland. After volunteering, he rewards himself by standing on top of our Jack and Jill Hill. He likes being up high.
At Fairyland, the group’s tasks include tying ribbons to our magic keys, helping our horticulturalist Jackie Salas rake leaves and feeding our sheep. They’re looking forward to being part of a major project we’ve planned: dismantling our old goat-house roof and hauling the parts to the trash bin.
“This group is the most sincere group of people I have had the pleasure of volunteering with,” said Jackie. “They’re genuine and inquisitive about everything they do. And the mentors that come with them are very dedicated to their work with the kids.”
In addition to Fairyland, some other volunteer sites the crew has been serving include the Alameda Food Bank, Alameda Meals on Wheels and the Alameda Animal Shelter. Kaitlin is partial to Oakland, though — she thinks it’s good for the young adults to get off the island. They recently volunteered at the New Parkway Theater in Uptown, and they’re eagerly looking forward to a return visit.
Some local Alameda businesses that support the students with job training include Safeway, the Blue Danube Café, CVS Pharmacy, Pagano’s Hardware and the Alameda Movie Theater.
Kaitlin told me that the focus of the adult transition program is to maximize independent living skills and to provide a fun, structured and community-driven experience for the young adults. At Fairyland, they’re also learning what it feels like to be appreciated for who they are and what they do.
We couldn’t agree more with Kaitlin when she talks about their great work ethic and “service with a smile.” They brighten our day and inspire us. Frankly, it just wouldn’t be Tuesday without them.
If you know of an organization or business that could use a few good men and women, contact Kaitlin at 510-337-7022, extension 5134.
C.J. Hirschfield has
served for 13 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is
charged with the overall operation the nation’s first storybook theme park.
Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television
industry. C.J. is former president and current board member of the
California Attractions and Parks Association, and also serves on the boards of
Visit Oakland and the Lake Merritt/Uptown Business Improvement District. C.J.
writes a weekly column for the Piedmont Post and OaklandLocal, where she loves
to showcase the beauty of her city and its people. She holds a degree in Film
and Broadcasting from Stanford University.