Parishioners at St. Dominic Parish, Brookfield, look forward all year to Dominic Days, the annual parish festival. This year, a new group of families had reason to be excited. For the first time, Dominic Days opened early to welcome children with special needs.

Fr. Dave Reith, Matthew Knoebel and his sisters Alana, 10, and Ashlyn, 5, survey the St. Dominic Parish, Brookfield, festival grounds on July 10, during a special 90 minute time period where families of children with special needs were invited free of charge to enjoy the rides and games. (Catholic Herald photo by John Kimpel)For an hour and a half before the festival’s official opening on Thursday, July 10, children with special needs and their families could get bright green “VIP” wristbands, free of charge, and enjoy the rides and games in a private, calm and supportive environment.

Susan McNeil, pastoral associate at St. Dominic, said more than 60 people signed up to attend during the early opening. The children participating have a variety of sensory, motor and cognitive challenges.

“For a lot of kids, they might be scared in the middle of a ride or need a little extra time,” she explained. “It’s too much pressure for a lot of those kids with all the crowds.”

St. Dominic already has a history of supporting these families and providing them with opportunities as part of the parish’s ministry.  

The parish hosts Partners for Progress, an organization that offers week-long summer camps for children with special needs. The camps offer intensive therapy opportunities for participants, using occupational, physical and speech therapies to work toward specific functional goals.  

This year, one of the camps coincided with the festival, and all the camp participants attended the early opening.
Carol Wingenter of Partners for Progress praised the parish’s efforts.  

“Having a special time set aside gives the parents the opportunity to allow their child to try and enjoy the rides in a slower, quieter and more supportive atmosphere,” she said. “Although we live in a world where inclusion is the buzz word, we don’t yet live in a world where understanding is always present. This special time allows parents the opportunity to be less anxious about what will happen, thus decreasing the anxiety the children may feel and allowing everyone to enjoy themselves without fear of judgment.”

Parents attending the early opening also praised St. Dominic’s commitment to supporting their families.  

Parishioner Kathy Evans said St. Dominic has been a crucial source of support through her son Jacob’s diagnosis with a rare neurological disorder. Jacob, who received his first Communion at St. Dominic, is now going into 11th grade at Hamilton High School.

“St. Dominic has been really good to us – so accommodating,” Evans said. “This is an opportunity for families to come out. It’s your church community; people are going to be accepting.”

Jennifer Bertram, another parent attending the early opening, also emphasized the importance of the community aspect of the event.  

“It’s really neat when you can get families together that are struggling with the same issues,” she said. “You get with other families and connect, and you don’t know where it will lead. The support network is crucial.”

McNeil said the idea for the early opening came from conversations with families.  She brought the concept to the festival planning committee, expecting to plant an idea that would take a few years to develop. Instead, the committee responded enthusiastically.  

Other partners stepped up quickly as well. Tip Top Rides, the company that provides the rides and games for the festival, was immediately supportive of the idea and agreed to donate the extra time.

To publicize, the committee reached out to the Elmbrook and Sussex/Hamilton School Districts and the local area Special Olympics Organization.

Next year, McNeil hopes that the parish will be able to spread the word more widely about the event, allowing more families to take advantage of the opportunity. She has been in touch with various local special needs organizations which have expressed an interest in helping with promotion.

Fr. Dave Reith, pastor at St. Dominic, seemed to be having almost as much fun as the kids as families started arriving at the festival grounds.

“Which rides are you going on?” he asked a group.

“We’re going to hit all of them, Fr. Dave!” one of them responded, and ran off in the direction of the carousel.