We like winter, but we’d be lying if we said this one wasn’t hanging on a bit too long. That’s why it was a relief to get away from yet another February snowstorm and soak up the warm vibes of the Winterfest carnival at Mercy Vocational High School on Saturday February 21.
Hula dancers, a Polynesian drummer, and a string band (among others) entertained a festive crowd of kids in Mercy’s beautiful historic building on Hunting Park Avenue.This is the 23rd year the Sisters of Mercy have hosted the annual day of fun, food, and caring for special needs children and their parents. Each year, the event brings more than ten schools from the Philadelphia Archdiocese system and beyond under one roof.
This year the special guests and the volunteer students, who are both caretakers and friends, enjoyed a luau-themed event called “Welcome to Mercy Island.”
The main event provided an exciting taste of the South Pacific, as a very large tattooed man (Chief Sikopu “Scope” Savaiinaea) beat out a rhythm on a hollow log with sticks while hula dancers snapped their hips and twirled their hands gracefully.
Occasionally they’d coax a special needs child (known at Winterfest as “buddies”) from the crowd to dance. The teenage volunteers pumped their hands and clapped, making the auditorium vibrate with excitement.
Chief Sikopu shouted words of encouragement (“there you go Kahuna!”) to the buddies as they shook their hips and twisted to the beat, while the crowd laughed and cheered and the hula girls spun around them.
The warm colors, the smiles, and the positive energy made it easy to forget the heavy snowflakes falling outside the auditorium windows.
Each year’s Winterfest has a different theme, according to Sister Rosemary Herron, “one year it was Mardi Gras, another was magic, and this year it’s a luau.” The carnival offers plenty for the kids to enjoy, including games, arts and crafts, a DJ, bingo, and prizes.
In between the events, the cafeteria serves up chicken fingers, Tastykakes, and other fun food. “We normally have a very healthy menu during school days but for Winterfest, we want it to be as much fun for the kids as possible,” said Kelsey Kastrava, assistant to the Director of Advancement.
And it works so well that some kids start thinking about Winterfest months in advance. “I’ve had parents tell me that as soon as the kids have unwrapped their gifts and Christmas is over, they start asking about Winterfest,” said Sister Rosemary.
It’s easy to see why both the buddies and the student volunteers love it. Watching the crowd, we saw plenty of hand holding, hugs, smiles, and even a high five or two.
“This is the second or third year for a lot of our volunteers,” says Ms. Kastrava, “they can get community service credits for Winterfest but almost all of them have already gotten all the credits they need. It’s more than just the credits for them. Teachers too. They aren’t required to participate but they all give up their Saturdays to make this a success.“
They also donate their time by fundraising months before the event. The “coin drive” lasts from late September until Halloween and is the source of friendly classroom rivalries. Each teacher and their class competes to see who can bring in the most loose change.
The rivalry has a serious side too — the winning home room gets a “dress down” day. And bragging rights. As I watched the dancing from the hallway, Sister Maria Madonna Johnson called me aside to tell me proudly that her kids raised $870, which will go to food, bingo prizes, and tattoos.
As much fun as it is for kids, the day is just as important for their parents. “This event was started to help out the parents really,” said Sister Peggy Kirby. “They work very hard raising their kids and this is a way to give them a break. They can leave their children with us knowing that they’re safe with our volunteers and adults who are trained in helping those with special needs. They can relax for the day and take time for themselves.“
A veteran of eleven Winterfests, Sister Peggy is instrumental in planning the event and training the student volunteers about working with special needs kids.
She provides orientations that teach student volunteers about the nonverbal cues special needs children use to communicate. This training helps the volunteers better understand how these children see the world. “But both groups benefit from it — it isn’t a one-way street.”
“That mutual understanding is why Winterfest is so important,” she says, looking around at tables full of lively kids in the cafeteria with a smile, “It helps our special needs children engage with other teenagers and build confidence. And for the volunteers, it makes the world a less cynical place. It softens the world for them.“