Southern Belle Farm gives back to special-needs community

By Jason A. Smith
Times Correspondent

Carla Crissey and her family came to Southern Belle Farm in McDonough over the weekend for a rare escape from daily life. Crissey has five children – four of whom have special needs – and said such opportunities don’t come along often.

“Most of our week is spent homeschooling,” said Crissey, of McDonough. “My husband and I, we don’t have a lot of money for extra things and special events, so an event like this blesses us as a family, to be able to go out and do something fun, something different that we don’t normally get to do.”

Special-needs children and their families enjoy a tractor ride at Southern Belle Farm’s inaugural Tent or Treat held last Saturday. Southern Belle Farm owner Jake Carter donated 400 tickets to People First of Henry County. Photo by Megan Seibel

Crissey was among those who turned out for People First of Henry County’s inaugural Tent or Treat event for the special-needs community. Southern Belle was lined with tents sponsored by local businesses offering food, games and other attractions for more than 500 people in attendance.

Twenty-two local businesses and organizations lent their support to People First for the Tent or Treat. Those groups included the McDonough Junior Women’s Club, the Brian Brakefield State Farm Agency and United Food Force, which supplied all the food for the event.

Stockbridge resident Todd McEarchern, a regular fixture at People First events, was all smiles as he visited various vendors at the Tent or Treat. After loading up on chocolate bars and other items offered by vendors, McEarchern said he was glad to have a chance to visit Southern Belle Farm with his friends.

“It means a whole lot to me,” said McEarchern. “I’ve never been to Southern Belle Farm before. I’ve been meaning to go for quite some time, but I’ve never gotten the chance to.”

Likewise, Saturday marked the first visit to the farm for Kirsten Van Wagner of Fairburn. She brought her three-year-old son Jackson, who has autism, to the Tent or Treat after hearing about it from a friend.

Van Wagner said the event allowed her son to be around other kids with disabilities, and said she is glad Southern Belle opened its gates to entertain special-needs families.

“He doesn’t always get to go everywhere, ‘cause he’s kinda all over the place,” she said. “This event actually enables us to see what they have here. Anytime that there’s an open space where he can run and not have to worry about anything is fantastic, and if they’re understanding and welcoming, then that’s even better.”

People First offers free social events for individuals with special needs in the area. One such individual, Ashley Hood of Hampton, said she is thankful for the organization’s continued efforts on behalf of her and her friends, adding that such occasions help her to feel less isolated.

“I think it’s a great thing,” said Hood, who has spina bifida. “I really enjoy being able to come to something like this, that there’s something there for us to do.”

In particular, Hood expressed her gratitude for one of People First’s directors, Connie Dodgen, for her continued dedication to serving those with special needs.

“Connie Dodgen is just a blessing to all the special-needs community,” said Hood. “If it wasn’t for her putting stuff on, a lot of special-needs individuals wouldn’t get to do anything. They wouldn’t have anything fun to go to.”

Dodgen, in turn, said she is grateful for the local community’s growing support for those with special needs and their families.

“It means so much to us because we feel like the community has finally embraced the special-needs community in Henry County,” said Dodgen.

She added that more families fall under that umbrella than some people might realize, further underscoring the need for free social events. Dodgen expressed her thanks to Southern Belle Farm owner, Jake Carter, for supplying 400 free tickets for the event.

“’Free’ is a big thing for our families,” Dodgen explained. “We know that families can’t afford it. Just having a day at Southern Belle, for a family of four, would be $60. [Carter] offered to give us 400 free tickets to families to get in and to be able to do everything, so we decided we would just kind of make a festival out of it with different vendors.”

Carter was approached by leaders at H.O.P.E. Park about helping to sponsor an event for People First. He said he was glad to do whatever he could to reach out to people with special needs and their families.

“This is just a wonderful group of people, and we just thought it would be a neat opportunity to allow them to have a time that they could come out with their families and friends, and just have a good time spending time together,” he said. “It’s just blown us away with the number of people that are out here just enjoying spending time together. That’s what it’s all about.”

Additional sponsors for the occasion included Retro Church, as well as Our World at H.O.P.E. Park, a school that is in the works for kids with special needs. H.O.P.E. is an acronym for “Helping Other People Excel.”

Lori Harris, project manager for H.O.P.E. Park, said her organization has teamed up with People First for several events recently and looks to do more going forward. The Tent or Treat also helped Harris get the word out about Our World at H.O.P.E. Park, which is set to open in August of 2017.

“Our big thing is that we just want to bring resources together for the community,” said Harris. “This kind of event is huge, number one, because we want to have a place for the special-needs community to go. They’re a huge family, they can connect with each other, they can share their resources, so that’s really good, and we want people to know that we’re here, and we’re here to help them.”