SAN ANTONIO – Six compassionate individuals who have distinguished themselves in helping those with special needs will be honored at the 9th annual “Free to Soar” Gala at 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 22, at Morgan’s Wonderland.
The six honorees – John Lee Cronin of Huntington, N. Y., Greg Johnson of Dallas, Grant Dean Manier of Houston, Emma Faye Rudkin of Boerne, and Barbara and George Williams of San Antonio – 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 and a simultaneous celebration at Morgan’s Inspiration Island splash park – Luau by the Lake – 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; next-door The Academy at Morgan’s Wonderland school for students with special needs; and the ultra-accessible™ splash park.
Activities will begin at 6 p.m. and include dinner, a live auction and inspirational remarks by Michael Kutcher, twin brother of actor Ashton Kutcher who has not allowed cerebral palsy to be a barrier to becoming a successful advocate, public speaker and businessman. Both gala and luau audiences will be linked interactively via live video displayed on giant LED walls.
After the gala and luau, guests will congregate at the Morgan’s Wonderland Starlight Amphitheater for performances by authentic hula and fire dancers, followed by a live concert from 10 to 11:30 p.m. featuring popular local artist Ruben V, who specializes in a smooth blend of blues, Latin, soul and rock music. 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 25th birthday celebration for 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). “This year, we’re delighted to have six honorees because of a husband-wife team, Barbara and George Williams.”
Hartman noted that 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 the GHFF.
“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,” he said.
The Wall of Fame honorees’ noteworthy contributions to the special-needs community include the following:
John Lee Cronin, Huntington, N. Y. – John, 22, who has Down syndrome, and his father created a successful business called John’s Crazy Socks. Why socks? John says they’re “fun, colorful and creative. They let me be me.” The inventory includes socks with “awareness themes” such as Autism Awareness Socks and Down Syndrome Awareness Socks. Every package includes a handwritten thank-you note from John and some candy, and a portion of earnings goes to Special Olympics. The Cronins, who say that “everything we do is designed to spread happiness,” have based John’s Crazy Socks on four pillars – “inspiration and hope, giving back, socks you can use and making it personal.”
Greg Johnson, Dallas – In 2005, Johnson founded Night of Superstars, a charity honoring special-needs children and young adults for their amazing achievements. It’s an Oscar-like, red-carpet event that involves many local celebrities. Each Night of Superstars features 20 outstanding individuals with varying types of disabilities who’ve reached far beyond their challenges. Each “superstar” receives a scholarship, and the organization works throughout the year to place its superstars in a mentorship program to help them achieve their goals. Night of Superstars is held currently in Houston, Dallas, Tyler, St. Louis and Kansas City, and plans call for New York City to be added to the list.
Grant Dean Manier, Houston – Manier, 22, calls himself an “eco-artist” who combines his two worlds – autism and art – into extraordinary collages. His form of therapy is to rip recycled paper into thousands of pieces and turn trash into artistic treasures. He travels and raises money by donating his art to schools, galas, conferences and the like. This effort has resulted in more than $150,000 collected for wheelchairs, hearing aids, camp tuitions and more. Last year, he and his mother began writing and illustrating a series of children’s books called Grant the Jigsaw Giraffe – Different Is More that highlights animals with special needs and their special abilities. Through his non-profit Grant More Books program, books are distributed free to children nationwide.
Emma Faye Rudkin, Boerne – Rudkin, who lost her hearing at age 3, has dedicated her life to helping the deaf and hard-of-hearing through her non-profit Aid the Silent Foundation, which focuses on deaf ministry, deaf education, deaf research and deaf resources. She also started Deaf Young Life to help and inspire high school students. Rudkin sings, plays four instruments and twice won the Miss San Antonio competition. Last May, she organized the first Good Vibrations Music and Arts Festival that featured enhancements for hard-of-hearing festivalgoers so everyone could enjoy the music. Furthermore, she has advocated for close-captioning in movie theaters and for state legislation to benefit the deaf and hard of hearing.
Barbara and George Williams, San Antonio – In addition to caregiving for two family members with special needs (one for 43 years and the other for 32 years), the Williamses have offered their guidance and financial support to numerous San Antonio organizations serving those with intellectual or developmental disabilities. For example, they helped fund the newest group home for Reaching Maximum Independence (RMI) as well as upgraded a vital RMI fire-suppression system. They provided a new swimming pool for Mission Road Ministries and made much-needed driveway reconstruction possible at the Unicorn Center. Their generosity, which often addresses problems that arise on short notice, also has benefitted other organizations such as TEAMability, The ARC, Sunshine Cottage, Lighthouse for the Blind, Friends of Hospice, Texas Burn Survivor Society and the Mays Cancer Center. Earlier this year, the Williamses were named RMI Champions at the organization’s fashion-show fundraiser.
“The Free to Soar gala and Luau by the Lake are our most important annual endeavors,” Hartman said. “Since Morgan’s Wonderland and Morgan’s Inspiration Island admit anyone with a special need free of charge, admissions revenue doesn’t begin to cover our operating expenses. Thus, we have to make up a significant operating deficit, and we’ve been able to do so, thanks to generous friends and supporters of our gala and luau.”
Morgan’s Wonderland, which is completely wheelchair-accessible, features more than 25 elements and 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 that officially opened in June 2017 offers six tropically-themed elements – five spacious splash pads and the River Boat Adventure ride – as well as revolutionary waterproof wheelchairs. The park concluded its 2018 schedule Sept. 16 and will reopen once warm weather returns next spring.
The nationally-accredited, non-profit Academy at Morgan’s Wonderland is located next to the theme park and accommodates students with special needs ages 12 through 24. The school focuses on getting each student ready for independence and employment through reading and math instruction as well as social and life skills and vocational training. For more information, visit www.MorgansWonderland.academy.
Morgan’s Wonderland is 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.