NCCH's BIG Family Picnic

“You should see my little Sis/She really knows how to rock/She knows how to twist!” crooned Chubby Checker, while people of all shapes, sizes, and abilities showed him that his sister wasn’t the only one who knew how to dance, how to twist. Had she been around, she would have found herself just as welcome by the staff of North Coast Community Homes (NCCH) as any one of the 150 or so residents with disabilities that made it out to the annual picnic.

On August 20, 2017 from 11:00 am until 2:00 pm NCCH held their annual picnic for their residents with disabilities who live in the homes the organization owns and manages. With the residents, another hundred or so care providers were in attendance. Many of them found themselves having just as much fun as the residents. And it’s no surprise.

The day was warm. The sun was bright. The pavilion at St. Sava Picnic Grounds provided some cool shade. The staff at NCCH had been there since about 9:00 am setting up. They laid out white paper table coverings.

“Next year we need more markers.” said Shannon Hill, receptionist and financial assistant for NCCH. She wanted to make sure that people could express themselves on the tables, while they waited to eat or after as they were relaxing, talking, or taking a break from the activities.

Hill is all about the details, which is why she was instrumental in making the event happen. But for her the greatest detail is ensuring the residents are taken care of and enjoy themselves.

“A lot of them [the residents] don’t have family. And I want this to be like Christmas for them.” said Hill. “I want their favorite things – dancing, food, face painting, activities. It’s a day all about them.”

Hill was a major organizer of the event, along with Jim Blackburn and Mike Howard, two of NCCH’s maintenance staff. It was Suzanne Seifert, NCCH’s CEO who envisioned a bigger and better picnic than years past. No, not just a picnic – an event. But it was the entire team who pitched in their energy, enthusiasm, and ideas to make it an amazing reality. They pulled out all the stops.

A full duffle of face painting supplies and temporary tattoos was laid out on a table in a corner of the pavilion. That way residents could have another kind of creative expression that fit in with the carnival atmosphere the day would come to have. Volunteers painted faces, names on arms, used stencils of animals, shapes, flowers. Most people got something on a hand or arm. A few brave ones had their whole face painted. One brave young gentleman wanted to be a tiger.

10 minutes and a fair amount of orange and black face paint later he asked “Can I sleep with this on?” face alight with hope.

Being told he’d have to wash it off later didn’t extinguish the joy. He still spent the rest of the day smiling.

Other residents got temporary tattoos. There was a bit of disappointment that some of the tattoos featuring super heroes didn’t stick well, but the selection was large enough that most residents had several back up choices.  Unsurprisingly, many of the Cleveland Indian tattoos were very popular among residents and care providers alike.  Thankfully, several volunteers, primarily family of NCCH staff and board, enthusiastically made the day by helping residents and other attendees select the right paint stencil or tattoo to show off.

Blackburn set the face painting table off to the side, so as not to interfere with getting food. It was running all day, so that residents and guests could be engaged with the activity before and after eating.

There was certainly plenty to eat. Thanks to John Polito, a landscaper who works with NCCH, no one went hungry. Polito generously donated hundreds of hot dogs and hamburgers which he grilled up for the over 300 attendees of the event. As a special treat, he also brought pulled pork. It’s a generous gift of food and service that he has done for several years. And it’s much appreciated.

In addition to the standard American picnic fair, there were grapes and chips. Cookies were donated by Subway. In fact, many things were donated by various businesses like Just a Buck, Drug Mart, and Lenovo. It’s this generosity of spirit that made the day possible.

Neil Gavin was another person who gave generously of his time. Like many NCCH board members, he volunteered to make the event special. Gavin and his family were in charge of games. Sitting out under the hot sun, Gavin ran a ball kicking contest and 2 guessing games where residents guessed the amount of skittles in a jar.

Many board members and their families helped out. Kristin Daily brought 7 family members to assist with the event. While Ed and Pat Pavlish weren’t in attendance, they made their presence felt by donating gas & grocery gift cards for providers who brought residents to the event.  Those were an unexpected surprise and a big hit for the home health aides who spend many of their working hours caring for residents’ needs.

The photo booth was yet another big hit for residents.  It was one of the few places where there was a consistent line of eager picnic goers. While they waited, they looked at hats and props they could use to make their picture, funny, fun, spectacular, or fabulous. The choice was up to them. It was a great opportunity for people to express themselves and show another side of their personality. 

It’s something perhaps many of us take for granted. But for a person with a disability, the simple act of freely choosing this or that funny hat, maybe a big fan, or a cane – whatever costume or accessory they wanted to use to express a different persona in that moment – that was special. Everyone got two copies of the 4 pictures that they could then keep or give to a family member to share the moment.

Above and around it all was the music. The staff at NCCH had planned dance contests. There were trophies, ribbons, as well as much applause and adulation for everyone who participated.  Three board members acted as judges, Jan Gusich, Fred Hunt, and Pat Finley.

“The judges are going to have a really hard time deciding the winner!”, announced DJ Jim Gepperth, during the contest.

Gepperth was as excited to be included as many of the residents. He worked for Catholic Charities in the past. At that time, he also DJ’d on the side for some of that organization’s events, which is how he got started.

“I know some of these people. I’ve seen them at past [Catholic Charities] events.” said Gepperth “Some of them came up to me and said ‘I know you,’ I was surprised they recognized me. It made me feel really good. I’d love to do this again next year.”

NCCH wants to do it again next year too. Seifert has a lot of ideas, as do the rest of the staff about ways to make it better, smoother, and more engaging for everyone involved – but especially for the residents. In fact, they’ve already set the date for next year’s event as August 19, 2018.

While this was the biggest turnout NCCH has had for the annual picnic, Hill is hoping next year even more people will come and be involved. Ensuring everyone is involved is one reason why she brings her own family to volunteer at NCCH events.

“My family is really important to me. I am who I am because of them.” said Hill. “We have a motto: ‘Teamwork makes the dream work’. We work together as a family to make each other’s dreams come true. And our residents are our extended family.”