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Some guys in funny hats ... and a few hundred of ‘God’s special kids’
Members of the International Order of the Alhambra, Bejar Caravan 56, welcome their guests May 2 to the San Antonio Zoo.
In May each year, around 600 special visitors descend on the San Antonio Zoo. Led by men in “funny hats” -- white fezzes -- developmentally disabled people of various ages and abilities visit the zoo for a day of fun, food, and fellowship.
The men in their “funny hats” are often mistaken for Shriners, or members of the Alzafar Shrine. But these folks helping “God’s special children” enjoy their day are members of the International Order of the Alhambra, a Catholic fraternal organization dedicated to “Faith ... family ... community ... the cornerstones of a healthy life.”
The International Order’s mission is to provide “assistance to developmentally disabled persons through its charitable programs and projects,” according to the group’s literature. San Antonio’s Bejar Caravan 56, the local chapter of this international group, supports programs and projects, such as Team Ability, the Special Olympics, Dreams Fulfilled Through Music, the Unicorn Centers, and the Mission Road Developmental Center. All provide services for the area’s developmentally challenged population.
Members raise funds and awareness throughout the year to assist these organizations. The zoo trip is the most visible effort; the members have hosted this for more than 40 years. In addition to paying for the zoo visit for more than 630 people -- their special guests, health workers, and assistants -- the members provide a meal and opportunity for fellowship. Members of Bejar 56, assisted by members of their ladies auxiliary, the Sultanas de Bejar, grilled and served hot dogs for their guests, who were entertained this year by the “Alamo Angels Accordion Orchestra,” part of Dreams Fulfilled Through Music; the band members are developmentally challenged, also.
“Once you come to one of the zoo trips, you want to come to all of them!” said Bejar 56 Grand Commander Robert “Bob” Herrera.
“It’s awesome!” exclaimed member David Acosta. “Just to see the faces of the kids. They show up and don’t have to do anything. We do everything! I look forward to this all year!”
The Alhambra volunteers say they get so much from hosting this trip, and enjoy the chance to provide a good day out with no worries for “God’s special children” -- as they refer to their guests -- as well as the adult assistants, staff, and teachers.
The volunteers work hard to ensure everyone feels welcome and at ease. Their guests truly appreciate the day, too.
“They love all the attention and they love that they’re always welcome,” said Raven Zamora, with RMI (Reaching Maximum Independence). “They look forward to this every year!”
“We love the interaction with our clients,” said Dianna Viray, a licensed vocational nurse with Quest College, along for the visit. “... Seeing them have a sense of normalcy. They’re all having a good time!”
Trish Kittrich, an adaptive PE specialist with the San Antonio Independent School District, attending with a group of students from Sarah King Elementary School, was thrilled.
“This is just excellent,” she said. “They feed the kids. We don’t have to carry the food and we can focus on helping the kids, and can take small groups at our own pace, not have a guided tour.”
Theresa Aleman, a special needs teacher at Sarah King Elementary School, has attended with students for the past three years.
“We love it!!” she said. “The kids get to work on their social skills, behavior, and language. It provides an opportunity to come to the zoo we probably wouldn’t have had. They really get to use their language and social skills.”
Another aspect the kids -- of all ages -- and the teachers and assistants enjoy is seeing old friends. They catch up with older students or those who’ve moved into other programs.
“We get to see kids that have moved on,” Kittrich said.
The members of the Alhambras and Sultanas do everything -- from manning a check-in table to issue wristbands for the zoo visitors to barbecuing the hot dogs and serving the meal. And when everyone’s been through the zoo, the volunteers clean up, leaving behind only the memory of a wonderful day for hundreds of “God’s special kids.”
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