SAN ANTONIO – Five compassionate individuals who have distinguished themselves in helping those with special needs will be honored at the 10th annual “Free to Soar” Gala at 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21, at Morgan’s Wonderland.
The honorees – Jerry Horton of Austin, Barbara Goldman of San Antonio, Erin O’Meara Kiltz of Georgetown, Texas, Rebecca Kuntz of Chicago and Betty Nakafunvu of Namutamba, Uganda – will be saluted at the gala, and their names will be placed permanently on the Wall of Fame in the heart of Morgan’s Wonderland.
The gala will benefit non-profit Morgan’s Wonderland, the world’s first theme park designed with special-needs individuals in mind and built to be enjoyed by everyone.
Activities will begin at 6 p.m. and include dinner, a silent auction and inspirational remarks by Jessica Rafuse of Seattle, senior program manager for Microsoft Accessibility. She is responsible for Microsoft’s strategic engagement with organizations that focus on people with disabilities as well as accessibility.
Following the gala, guests will be invited to an after-party at The Picnic Place, where they can dance to the sounds of popular, Austin-based band Electric Circus. Guests also can enjoy Morgan’s Wonderland rides including the colorful carousel, Whirling Wonder Ferris wheel and Wonderland Express train.
Another one of the evening’s highlights will be a 26th birthday celebration honoring Morgan Hartman, daughter of philanthropists Gordon and Maggie Hartman. Morgan’s positive outlook despite cognitive and physical challenges inspired her parents to create Morgan’s Wonderland and pursue other major initiatives to benefit the special-needs community.
“Each year we heap high praise on five incredibly wonderful individuals who have dedicated themselves to promoting inclusion,” said Gordon Hartman, CEO of The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation (GHFF). “Wall of Fame nominations arrived from coast to coast, and each one was carefully reviewed by a panel of judges from Morgan’s Wonderland and our Foundation. It’s very difficult to select the winners from so many deserving nominees, however we believe the values exhibited by this year’s honorees clearly mirror inclusion and other principles on which Morgan’s Wonderland was founded such as caring, determination and sacrifice.”
The Wall of Fame honorees’ noteworthy contributions to the special-needs community include the following:
Jerry Horton, Austin – In 1989, Horton and wife Judy – parents of 34-year-old daughter Kelly, who has Down syndrome – created Down Home Ranch, a 410-acre farm and ranch in Elgin that provides inclusive, affordable housing for Kelly and 40 adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). Residents, or “ranchers,” enjoy full and inclusive lives there and live in an array of residences suited to their abilities. Down Home Ranch also serves adults in the community through its Day Program, and its summer residential Ranch Camp brings joy to 90 adults with IDD during three-week-long overnight camps. In 2016, Morton launched a new non-profit, Point Rider Foundation, to share his expertise in helping families and non-profits nationally to realize their housing goals.
Barbara Goldman, San Antonio – As a teacher of the visually-impaired, Goldman recognized the need for helping children with severe, multiple disabilities. She developed an innovative approach that demonstrated results not achieved through traditional ways of working with these youngsters. This led to the creation in 2003 of TEAMability, a non-profit that helps children deal with complex disabilities. Her expertise has facilitated collaborative relationships with physicians, schools, universities and community agencies to further public understanding of the needs of disabled children.
Erin O’Meara Kiltz, Georgetown, Texas – In 2011, Kiltz and her husband founded Brookwood in Georgetown (BiG), a non-profit that provides meaningful social and vocational opportunities for adults with disabilities. Their inspiration was daughter Gracie, who was born with Down syndrome and who suffered from leukemia-treatment complications that left her without speech or mobility. BiG gives participants, called “Citizens,” the opportunity to create marketable items such as pottery, soaps, handmade cards and fudge. All Citizens at BiG earn the respect of community members who purchase their products at the BiG shop, café and greenhouse. Gracie passed away unexpectedly in September 2018 at age 27, yet the Kiltzes remained committed to helping the special-needs community.
Rebecca Kuntz, Chicago – After graduating from high school, Kuntz went on a mission trip and met a set of twins with complex medical conditions – Prince and Ellie – in Ghana, where disabled children are viewed as punishment to the mother. She applied for and was granted custody of the twins, but days after celebrating his first birthday, Prince died. Kuntz returned to the U. S. with Ellie and became a strong advocate for children with special needs. She helped Chicago build its first accessible playground, used social media to share do-it-yourself tutorials on how to adapt toys and furniture for children with special needs and solicited donations for other families in need. Kunz now works for the Nora Project, an elementary school curriculum that pairs children with disabilities with participating classrooms.
Betty Nakafunvu, Namutamba, Uganda – Since childhood, Nakafunvu has been challenged with a walking impairment and has personally experienced challenges facing children with disabilities in Uganda. She now devotes her life to helping underprivileged children in her country up to age 17 through the Namutamba Rehabilitation Centre for Children. As head of the centre, she reaches out to disabled children with a caring attitude, compassion and integrity. The environment in Uganda is not always favorable for a wheelchair-user like Nakafunvu, but she is not intimidated by the perils of traveling through rough, potholed streets in order to serve as a role model and achieve her goals.
“The Free to Soar gala is one of our most important annual endeavors,” Gordon Hartman said. “Since Morgan’s Wonderland and Morgan’s Inspiration Island splash park admit anyone with a special need free of charge, admissions revenue doesn’t begin to cover our operating expenses. Thus, we must make up a significant operating deficit, and we’ve been able to do so, thanks to generous friends and supporters of our gala.”
Morgan’s Wonderland, which is completely wheelchair-accessible, features more than 25 attractions including rides, playgrounds, gardens, a catch-and-release fishing lake, 18,000-square-foot special-events center, 575-seat amphitheater, picnic area and rest areas throughout the park. Check www.MorgansWonderland.com for the latest information on days and hours of operation.
Colorful Morgan’s Inspiration Island splash park offers six tropically-themed elements – five spacious splash pads and the River Boat Adventure ride – as well as revolutionary waterproof wheelchairs. TIME named it to the magazine’s 2018 list of World’s 100 Greatest Places. The park will conclude its 2019 schedule Sept. 15 and will reopen once warm weather returns next spring.
Morgan’s Wonderland and Morgan’s Inspiration Island are located in Northeast San Antonio, a half-mile west of IH 35 at the intersection of Wurzbach Parkway and Thousand Oaks Drive. For more information, call (210) 495-5888.