July 2020: Young Inquisitive Minds
The San Francisco Bay area may be the tech capital of the world, but high school students Nithila Poongovan and Meghana Repaka noticed a startling trend in their school system: even though students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) gravitated towards STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Math) interests, most of their ASD peer group had never experienced STEM activities. Such a lack did not sit well with either of them. “It was concerning to see that the Bay Area special needs community lacks the equal resources that kids in general education are given,” says Poongovan.
The young women developed, designed, and landed funding for their nonprofit, Young Inquisitive Minds. Young Inquisitive Minds brings hands-on STEM activities to students in special education programs, in-person and online. In an effort to create more awareness for people with special needs, Poongovan and Repaka launched Embracing Special Needs, a media platform that presents inspiring profiles of people speaking out for and supporting those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Cofounders Poongovan and Repaka, along with the several other impact-driven high school students volunteering for Young Inquisitive Minds, represent the very best of what the beauty of inclusion looks like when people take simple steps to make big changes for people with disabilities.
April 2020: FLöK by Bekim
On a typical Monday, FLöK by Bekim salon is closed and employees are getting a much needed day of rest. However, on Monday, January 27th, this talented and caring team opened their doors to a dozen individuals with disabilities, providing full-service hair and makeup at no cost. The salon also coordinated with L’Oréal to provide generous gift bags for each participant and a one-of-a-kind experience.
FLöK by Bekim owners Lule & Bekim Osmani approached Help Us Gather to coordinate this special experience.
“FLöK by Bekim understands that every person is valuable,” said Robin Lally, founder of HUG. “We are so lucky to have local business owners who make inclusion a priority.”
HUG commends the entire FLöK by Bekim team for their outstanding efforts to make individuals of all abilities feel valued. You can visit FLöK by Bekim at 609 S. Fort Harrison Avenue in Clearwater or at FlokbyBekim.com.
March 2020: Poolside
When you walk inside Poolside’s bright, airy store in Sand Key, the first thing you notice are the racks of upscale clothing, trendy shoes and fashion-forward jewelry. Now, the store is featuring a designer with Down syndrome who’s fitting right in with her sparkly display.
23-year-old Maxine Simeone creates and sells her own hair accessories line, called “Sparkles by Maxine.” Maxine has been working with Help Us Gather to grow her business. When HUG approached Poolside owner Isaac Arobas about carrying Maxine’s line in his boutique, he happily agreed.
Thanks to Poolside, Sparkles by Maxine has gotten some major attention. Maxine has been featured on TV and her story has been shared around the globe. HUG commends the entire Poolside team for their outstanding efforts to include and celebrate the talents of individuals of all abilities.
You can purchase Maxine’s hair accessories at Poolside’s boutique located in the Shoppes on Sand Key or at SparklesbyMaxine.org.
September 2019: Treasure Island Fun Center
Treasure Island Fun Center in Seminole is the largest arcade in Pinellas County, offering more than 150 games, rides, pool, pinball, air hockey and much more.
On Saturday, September 7th, Treasure Island Fun Center opened its doors an hour early to welcome a group of more than 70 individuals with disabilities and their loved ones for an arcade event hosted by Help Us Gather. HUG covered the cost of entry so dozens of families and attendees from local group homes could have an afternoon of fun, games and friendship.
By opening its doors early, Treasure Island Fun Center helped ease individuals with special needs who have sensory differences into this new, bright and sometimes loud environment. This gives people with disabilities a chance to adjust and get comfortable with their surroundings, making sure all families have a positive experience while at the arcade.
August 2019: Studio Movie Grill
A trip to the movie theater is the perfect escape from a hot Florida day, but for some, the experience can be more difficult than enjoyable. The theater can be too dark, the volume too loud, and the snack lines too long. That’s where Studio Movie Grill comes in.
Since 2001, Studio Movie Grill has hosted Special Needs Screenings. Movies play with the lights on, volume lowered, and guests can have the freedom to move around and talk. Studio Movie Grill even delivers food to guests to eliminate waiting in lines and provide a seamless movie-watching experience.
Studio Movie Grill sets the example by making small accommodations that make a world of difference to people with disabilities. With discounted tickets, food brought right to your seat, and a sensory-friendly environment, the Special Needs Screenings at Studio Movie Grill make going to the movies easy and accessible for all.
July 2019: Jessica McKnight Photography
HUG noticed many people with special needs were not getting the opportunity to be featured in photos or advertising and decided to host a Photo Shoot Day. Jessica McKnight donated hours of her time, shooting and editing photos of people with disabilities who don’t often get a chance to take high-quality pictures.
“I believe in treating all people with dignity, respect, love and kindness,” said McKnight. “We all have the power within us to make someone happy, we just have to use it.”
In fact, McKnight is so committed to making sure her business is inclusive, she recently expanded her studio at 1433 S. Fort Harrison Ave in Clearwater, adding space on the first floor to accommodate individuals in wheelchairs.
You can find out more information and book a photo shoot at JessicaMcKnight.com.
May 2019: iFLY
Learning to skydive is a bucket list must for most adventure enthusiasts. It’s also an activity that most individuals with disabilities, especially those who are wheelchair-bound, rule out. That is, until now.
All Abilities Night at iFLY is a unique way to make the dream of flight a reality for individuals with special needs. This program has been custom-designed for teens and adults with physical and cognitive challenges.
Instructors work closely with the fliers, making sure they felt prepared for exactly what they were about to experience in iFLY’s giant wind tunnel. iFLY can even outfit fliers with a special brace to keep their legs in place while they’re in the air. Fliers enter the wind tunnel with one or two instructors, who hold tight to keep the flier safe.
You can learn more about iFLY & book a flight here.
April 2019: The City of Largo’s Recreation, Parks and Arts Dept.
When it comes to getting fit and having fun, the City of Largo’s Recreation, Parks and Arts Department knows everyone should be included. That’s why they’ve been offering adaptive recreation classes since 2006.
“The response from patrons has been positive and staff have said over and over how fulfilling it is to work with special populations,” said Joan M. Byrne, Largo Recreation Parks and Arts Director. “We all win in making recreation, parks and arts open, welcoming and accessible to all.”
The City of Largo offers adaptive fitness, dance and karaoke classes. Classes are only $3 if you have a recreation membership and $6 for all other participants. By keeping costs low, the Recreation, Parks and Arts Department makes their community programs more accessible to families and individuals with special needs.
You can view dates and times for the City’s adaptive recreation programs here.
March 2019: Bobby Lewis
HUG first met Emmy award-winning reporter Bobby Lewis when he put together a news story for Channel 10 WTSP about HUG’s Beyond Beautiful Fashion Event. Lewis is a reporter who finds good news to report and shares it with the community through his segment, “On the Road with Bobby Lewis.”
Now, Lewis has turned those experiences into a wonderful book called, “Finding Joy Beyond the Headlines.” To celebrate Lewis’ uplifting book, HUG and St. Paul UMC’s Handicapable Ministry teamed up to buy enough copies to give each individual with special needs in attendance a free, signed copy. Lewis also took photos with hundreds of guests.
By sharing inspiring stories of many different individuals, including those with disabilities, Lewis highlights an important social connection that we all share. You can read excerpts and buy a copy of Lewis’ book here.
February 2019: Dunedin Lanes
At Dunedin Lanes, everyone is welcome, regardless of skill, age or ability. The local business is going above and beyond to make sure individuals and families with disabilities are included in the fun and comradery of bowling.
Every Saturday, alongside other competitive bowling leagues, you will find a group of adults with disabilities exchanging tips, competing and socalizing. The bowling alley hosts the Dunedin Stars, a competitive league for adults with developmental disabilities where all are welcome.
The league provides an opportunity to connect and bond in a fun environment. For individuals with special needs, bowling is not just about the competition; Dunedin Lanes is a place to be socially included.
On any day of the week, individuals of any age with special needs are able to bowl for a discounted rate of $2.00 per game. Bumpers and ball ramps are provided upon request at no extra charge. By offering a small discount for people with special needs, the bowling alley creates a welcoming environment and provides a fun activity for entire families.
October 2018: Me & U Fitness Academy
When you walk through the front door of Me & U Fitness Academy, you may hear some upbeat music and see the members of the group boxing from a wheelchair or doing balance exercises while holding weights. All abilities are welcome in Tina Tallman’s innovative adaptive fitness class.
Tallman’s current clients include individuals with autism, down syndrome, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and other disabilities. Tallman has a unique ability to blend a class full of people working with different abilities, creating an impactful workout for everyone involved.
Tallman also has special events like a wheelchair rodeo, which is an obstacle course completed using a wheelchair. The members of her class have also been helping to promote adaptive fitness by performing exercise dance routines specifically suited to each individual’s abilities.
July 2018: Clearwater Marine Aquarium
Finding an organization where diversity is celebrated and inclusion is a top priority is a big deal. At Clearwater Marine Aquarium, the staff loves connecting to people who are inspired by their dolphins Winter and Hope. That’s why the aquarium staff created a program called “Inspirational Stories” to document these special experiences.
On July 28th, Clearwater Marine Aquarium hosted HUG’s friendship group of over 60 individuals with various disabilities. The group was greeted with big smiles, given a VIP meet and greet with Winter the dolphin’s trainer, allowed access to the aquarium for the full day, and each participant was even provided with fun entry photos to take home.
HUG thanks Clearwater Aquarium for its exceptional efforts of inclusion and for making a difference in the lives of countless individuals with special needs.
June 2018: Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office
Help Us Gather (HUG) is pleased to award June’s Community Swag Award to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office for its outstanding efforts of inclusion. On Saturday, June 9th, the first adaptive Sheriff’s Citizens Academy was held at the Sheriff’s Administration building where attendees were treated to an interactive day of laughing and learning with over a dozen deputies.
Friends of HUG got to enjoy fun, exciting activities like virtual firearm demonstrations, self-defense tactics, interactions with K9 officers, exploring police vehicles and a helicopter takeoff and landing.
By creating an inclusive event, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office provided the special needs community with a sense of importance and connection to the community. Help Us Gather commends the Sheriff’s Office for the positive example it has shown and looks forward to other organizations making similar changes.
May 2018: The Ability Experience
Inclusion is as easy as riding a bicycle, and The Ability Experience is here to prove it! Every year, a team cycles more than 800 miles for ‘Gear Up Florida’, a program designed to raise awareness and funds for inclusion. From Miami to Tallahassee, cyclists stop along the way, visiting local organizations with similar missions and passions.
The HUG Team was able to catch up with the cyclists at The Disability Achievement Center and was honored to present the first ever HUG Community Inclusion Award to The Ability Experience for their efforts of inclusion, fun and friendships!
Will Pechous, a cyclist from Kenosha, Wisconsin said, “This ride means a lot to me because I have a twin brother who has a disability. He would kill to be where I am and do the things I do, but he can’t, so, I’m doing this for him. This trip is truly meaningful and represents the ability to be part of something bigger than yourself.”