Huntingburg teen’s dream for special needs festival coming to fruition

Inspired by her nephew, Isaiah, Maleah Dearing created and helped lead the county’s first festival designed specifically for those with special needs. The festival will take place in Huntingburg’s Market Street Park on Saturday, March 18, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Photo by Matthew Crane.

When Maleah Dearing received the special assignment in her seventh-grade language arts class at Southridge Middle School, she knew exactly what she would do.

Tasked with creating a special event or festival with a group of students she was teamed up with, Maleah drew upon her life experience with her nephew, Isaiah.

Isaiah was born in 2016 with Down Syndrome and struggled with a narrowing in his nasal cavity from a condition known as Choanal Atresia. This condition can lead to issues with breathing and affect a baby’s ability to eat since they can’t breathe through their nose very effectively.

Isaiah was flown to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital within 24 hours of being born for surgery to correct the Choanal Atresia. He ended up having nine surgeries over three weeks. In recovery after one of those surgeries, Isaiah’s heart stopped. “I was freaking out,” Alysia Fisher, Isaiah’s mom, said. “And Maleah walks in and starts singing.”

The doctors were preparing to take action when seemingly responding to seven-year-old Maliah’s sweet song, Isaiah’s heart began beating again. The pair have shared a special bond ever since.

She was thinking of him when Ms. Elisabeth Ahlbrand handed out the assignment. “For years, my sister (Alysia) has been talking about there being nothing for special needs kids to do,” Maleah explained.

Though the county is packed with great entertainment, festivals and concerts, they can be overwhelming for folks like Isaiah. She used the Herbstfest as an example. “You go, and there are a lot of people there; it isn’t always wheelchair accessible; you’ve got bands playing, flashing lights,” Maleah explained. “It is so overwhelming, and we see this in Isaiah. We can only stay so long, and it takes him a week to come down from it.”

So, when the assignment was handed out, she immediately told her partners about the idea for the festival specifically for folks with special needs. Without hesitation, they jumped on board and began brainstorming.

As the school project developed, Maleah began to think about the next steps. “It wasn’t just a project to me. The whole time I was doing it, I kept thinking, this has to be a real thing,” Maleah said.

One night she couldn’t stop thinking about the festival. It couldn’t just begin and end as a project she got points for in seventh grade. Tossing and turning in bed, she finally called her sister.

Alysia remembers the phone call from Maleah waking her up early that morning. “I pick up the phone, and she goes, ‘We’re doing this,'” she said. “I was like, ‘cool, I guess we are doing this.'”

With support from her family, teacher and others who had latched onto the idea, Maleah was soon sitting in front of Huntingburg Mayor Steve Schwinghamer pitching the festival idea. “It was terrifying,” the 14-year-old said about the meeting. “I couldn’t make eye contact with him.”

After going through the slides and explaining her idea, the mayor said they’d make it happen. Maleah, surprised and still overwhelmed from the meeting, didn’t quite catch what he said. “Is that a yes,” she asked her mom, sister and teacher.

“There wasn’t a dry eye there as we told her yes,” Alysia said.

Moving forward, their enthusiasm met some resistance as they found out what the process entailed. Things like event insurance and fundraising forced them to examine where the horse was in relation to the cart. Taking a step back and relying on her mom, Tina Dearing, and her background in nonprofit leadership, they formed Differently Able, Inc. to be the organization sponsoring the event.

The event has been moved to Memorial Gym due to the weather.

With the nonprofit formed and all the paperwork complete, Maleah and her crew plan to hold The Sky’s the Limit, the first special needs festival in Dubois County, at Market Street Park on Saturday, March 18, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The festival will feature special speakers, resources, food trucks and sensory-friendly games and activities specifically for those with special needs. They will even have a special bear hunt in which participants can take time to find the special bears at the event and, as a reward, if they wish, receive a hug. Regarding resources, they plan on offering binders designed to store the many pieces of information that families with special needs collect and need to reference constantly.

Taking the school project from idea to reality has opened Maleah’s eyes to the connections available in the community. After meeting the mayor, she presented the idea to the Huntingburg Park Board. She was surprised to see people she knew on the board, including her eighth-grade language arts teacher Mrs. Shannon Fuhs.

Throughout the process, the family has also heard other families’ stories. Stories that reflected their troubled beginning with Isaiah and highlighted some of the shared difficulties. Inspired by this commonality, the new nonprofit is looking to the future for other areas they can help. With the new festival on the horizon, they would like to use it to gain momentum to raise funds for these other initiatives.

The first is to create a fund to provide gift cards for families to use for lodging, food and fuel if they find themselves in a medical situation like Alysia did when Isaiah was born. She tried to get into the Ronald McDonald House in Cincinnati during the weeks he was in the NICU, but they were full. Alysia spent her days in the eight-by-eight room beside her son while her family drove back and forth from Huntingburg to provide clean clothes and food during the three-week stay.

The second is to create a way for caregivers to be provided breaks for personal moments like a special date night with a spouse or just time away for a couple of hours. Along with care, they would like to provide gift cards for movies and restaurants to help out.

Further down the road, they want to create a special needs park in Dubois County. According to the family, while parks in the county feature some equipment designed for special needs, accessibility can still be an issue. Plus, if it is a single piece of equipment, it can become boring to only have one option on a playground.

“I think every child deserves to have a park of their own,” Maleah said. “I have never had that problem, I can go to any park I want.”

She and the team that has come together around the festival plan on creating an entire park with wheelchair-accessible merry-go-rounds, swings, slides and more designed for special needs families.

The nonprofit is raising money for these initiatives and support for the festival. If you or your organization would like to support their efforts, you can follow them on Facebook here or contact them at 812-631-6816.