Education, advocacy and inclusivity came together Saturday under the pavilion in Cosmo Park. The result was lots of laughter, dancing and fun.

Columbia Special Education Parent Teacher Association, alongside the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, hosted a carnival and a walk called “In It Together: A Walk for Inclusion.” This event provided a social space for children with special needs to feel accepted.

The main purpose was to raise awareness in Columbia about children in special education, said Amie VanMorlan, the vice president of SEPTA and organizer of the event.

SEPTA and the Thompson Center are collaborating on a new inclusivity program. The name is still in the works, VanMorlan said, but Saturday’s event demonstrated many of the program’s goals.

“Our main goal is get children in general education together with children in special education,” she said. “Children in general education — they learn leadership skills, problem-solving skills and communication skills, and then the children in special education want more than anything to have a friend and feel included, get invited to social gatherings and want to know they have a place in the world where they feel accepted and appreciated for who they are.”

Tables covered in blue and green tablecloths welcomed kids and adults to play games, such as digging through rice or beans for colorful fruit-shaped erasers or throwing pool floats onto flamingo poles.

Volunteers, many of them MU medical students and members of the MU chapter of Alpha Chi Omega, ran these games, which captivated the children during the first hour of the event. Candy, small toy prizes and affirmations like “You got it!” were abundantly handed out.

Parents and kids blew bubbles and toured firetrucks from the Columbia Fire Department and Boone County Fire Protection District.

Organizations, many of which sponsored the event, were also advocating their causes and educating participants. Many of the representatives are passionate about their causes, like Alison Lee, a representative from the event’s premier sponsor, Phoenix Home Care. Lee tabled at the event — even though Saturday was also her wedding day.

Prizes for themed raffle baskets were donated from local businesses and organizations such as Mizzou Athletics, Lizzi & Rocco’s Natural Pet Market and The Candy Factory.

After about an hour of games, families and supporters walked a 1.25-mile trail, led by eight athletes from the MU track and field, softball and baseball teams.

Walkers stopped along the path to learn about issues related to special needs, such as touch sensitivity and what it feels like to use a wheelchair.

After the walk, the event turned into a dance party. Everyone — children, parents and volunteers — waved their arms to songs like “Cha Cha Slide” and “Let It Go” from the movie “Frozen.”

Christina Ingoglia, who has a 4-year-old daughter with a rare genetic syndrome, said the inclusivity of the event meant a lot to her.

“Ninety percent or more, it seems like events are for diagnosis-specific people,” she said. “While I could see a value in that, I wish there were more resources like this that were more inclusive to all because rarely is my daughter included in events.”

Her daughter Lilly sported unicorn high-top sneakers and marveled at the bubbles.

Some parents brought their kids to the event to learn about inclusivity. Jaime Wacker brought her two daughters, ages 3 and 7, to teach them to be inclusive.

“When I was young, there wasn’t anything like this,” Wacker, who grew up in Columbia, said. “I think certainly they (need) to be introduced early to what they can be doing, so they can be responsible humans.”

Just over a year old, SEPTA provides resources and unity to families and educators of children with special needs. VanMorlan said SEPTA planned this event after parents said they enjoyed similar, smaller inclusion events the group has hosted.

“Sometimes if you’re a parent of a child with special needs, you can feel isolated and alone,” VanMorlan said.

She said the event planning began back in the spring.

SEPTA is holding its first meeting of the school year at 6 p.m. Sept. 17. Previous members can renew their memberships, and new members can join at this meeting, according to the group’s website. A location has not been announced yet.

Supervising editor is Hannah Hoffmeister.

  • Public Life reporter, fall 2019. I am studying investigative journalism. Reach me at, or in the newsroom at 882-5700.

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