Kids with special needs buddy up with local students for a day of music, dancing and games

It was a packed house at Mercy Vocational High School on Saturday for the 20th annual Winterfest, a one-of-a-kind carnival for kids with special needs.

Over 190 high school students from ten different Catholic schools in the Philadelphia Archdiocese system and beyond each partnered with a young adult with special needs for a day-long festival. The day was highlighted with a game of Bingo, a musical showcase, dancing, a carnival and a DJ dance-off.

Winterfest co-founder Sister Peggy Kirby, who teaches at Mercy Vocational High school on Hunting Park Avenue says the goal of the festival is twofold.

“Basically to get young people together with their disabled peers and for the kids with disabilities to get to know other young people who have a lot of advantages that they don’t always have,” she said.

Establishing bonds between kids 

Organizers hold an annual coin drive from “Mercy Day” in late September through Halloween to raise money for the Winterfest. Each class races to collect donations for the event in a contest. This past year more than $3,800 was donated to support the festival. Kirby says that the donations aren’t just pocket change to most families.

“Our main source of revenue is through our kids, and it’s really poor kids giving, most of our kids live below the poverty line,” she said. Kirby has worked with special needs children for over a decade and says the Winterfest helps to create a special bond between kids. 

“You know some people say, they’re disabled, I don’t know what to do with them, but they just seem to meld together here,” she said explaining that even the “too cool for school” kids get into the spirit just for their buddy. 

Nineteen-year-old Jacqueline Lloyd dons jeans, a yellow t-shirt and a smile a mile wide. She volunteered as a special assistant to the magician during an act full of card tricks and illusions and isn’t shy around strangers.

Lloyd, who was a special needs guest, says that the illusionist, “Mystique,” was her favorite part of the day, but that she was glad to make new friends and has found that sometimes you meet people halfway.

“You should always be friends with people that you like, but if you don’t know them you should try to welcome them where they are,” she said after attending the event for eight years now. But not everyone is so extroverted.

A chance to socialize with friends 

Shay Singleton, a 10th grader at Mercy says that she’s learned a lot from her buddy Melissa, but that it took a little time for them to warm up.

“At first it was hard to connect because you don’t know what their interests are, and its hard to open up to new people,” she said.

By lunch though, Singleton says things changed, “we had a lot of fun up there [in the carnival]” and says she learned that Melissa is quite the athlete and plays soccer, golf and bowling. “And really good at bingo,” she said, adding that she won more than 10 times that day.

Steve Schmidt, who taught religion at Mercy in the 1990s, also helped begin the event, he says that for the students, Winterfest is an example of being Christian.

“They are living the gospel, they might not always read it, they might not always go to church, but what they’re doing right now, that’s what it’s all about,” he added. Schmidt says they’ve had to limit how many students from outside schools they could allow due to space constrictions and they expect the event to last another 20 years.

“It gives the kids a chance to run around, win prizes and have fun,” he said.

Sponsors of the event included Keystone Mercy Health Plan, Wawa, Community Service Corps, RDS vending, the Office for Youth and Young Adults Archdiocese of Philadelphia, TastyKake, Kampus Klothes, and Tasty Twisters, a local pretzel company.

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