Circus hosts special-needs kids
for annual event

By Jason A. Smith
Times Correspondent

Six-year-old Francisco Shinolt has endured challenges throughout his young life.

L. to r.: friends Fierrell Walker, age 6 and 4-year-old Jaden Leach, both of Stockbridge, watch the lions and tigers at Phillips Arena. Special photo

To help him deal with some of those challenges, he and his father, Doug, moved to Stock-bridge several months ago. However, the youngster recently got a much-needed distraction, he visited The Greatest Show on Earth.

Francisco, who attends Red Oak Elementary School, was among the special-needs children in Henry County who were treated to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® Circus at Philips Arena in Atlanta Feb. 13. The kids and their families also got into the circus’ Magical Journey event and a private pre-show on the arena floor at no charge.

Doug Shinolt says although his son has been to the circus before, this time was different.

“He’s a little older so he’s more interested in what’s going on in front of him,” the father says. “He stayed glued to his seat. He was able to have a good time in an environment that was comfortable for him. For him, it was one big adventure.”

Francisco came to Stockbridge from Clayton County in 2014. His father says one reason for the move was to help Francisco – who first came to Red Oak in December -- to improve his limited vocabulary, brought on by an expressive speech delay.

“The teachers have done a great job with him,” says Doug Shinolt. “He’s changed a lot since he’s been in Henry County schools, but he’s still got a long way to go.”

Children in the group were also able to interact with animals and performers appearing in the circus.

Jazlynn Walker works in the cafeteria at Red Oak Elementary and came to the circus with her three kids. Her six-year-old son, Sa’Ferrell, has autism resulting from a mild case of cerebral palsy.

“He can’t really talk,” explains Walker. “He just screams. It’s loud and if you’re not prepared for it, it can take you off guard.”

This month marked the first time either of them had ever been to the circus. Jazlynn Walker says although her son has difficulty communicating, there was no misunderstanding how excited he was to be at the circus.

“He really, really enjoyed himself,” says the mother. “That was actually the first time I saw him actually sit still for that long of a time. He was just amazed.”

Walker says she appreciated being in an environment where Sa’Ferrell “could be a kid and feel like nobody’s judging him.” With frustration evident in her voice, she acknowledges that such a welcoming atmosphere is not always the case when she is out with her son.

“A lot of people stare,” says Walker. “There are people out there living different from you. It’s not OK to stare.”

She also expressed gratitude for the chance to interact at the circus with other parents of children with special needs.

“We’re a community,” says Walker. “I met so many parents with kids like Sa’Ferrell.”

Walker adds that her other two children, Ja’Ferrah and Ferrell III, were happy that Sa’Ferrell got to enjoy the circus as well.

“It put a smile on my other kids’ faces to see him happy,” she says.

Gas South hosted the children’s circus experience for the sixth year, joining forces with the Metropolitan Atlanta Mayors Association, the Georgia Municipal Association and Feld Entertainment. Mayors in 30 communities across the state worked to provide the kids with tickets for the circus.

Stockbridge Mayor Tim Thompson was among the municipal leaders who took part in the occasion. He says the circus was a special time for children and volunteers in attendance.

“We’re thrilled to help bring this magical experience to these children and their families,” says Thompson. “We’re grateful to Gas South and Feld Entertainment for the opportunity.”