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Benton Heights Elementary School of the Arts site of 17th annual VSA

Sarah Miller, 17, a junior at Parkwood High School, enjoys some crafts that fellow Parkwood student Will Wenger, 18, made during the festival.

About 300 Union County Public Schools special needs students were given a red carpet welcome during the 17th annual Very Special Arts (VSA) Festival held Tuesday (May 3, 2011) at Benton Heights Elementary School of the Arts.

BHESA principal Mike Harvey said it was fitting to have VSA at his school, calling it an awesome opportunity. "Being a school of the art, it makes it more special for us to be able to host these types of events because we really value the arts here at our school," he said. "The arts aren't exclusive just to people who are able-bodied. There are a lot of people with disabilities who enjoy the arts and are creative, and this gives them the opportunity to experience the joy that art brings."

The festival, in the planning stages since last fall, was enjoyed by a total of about 600 individuals, with half of those being the guests of honor, the UCPS special needs students. The other 300 were made up of students, parent volunteers, teachers and sponsors.

The festival offered games, crafts, face painting, balloon animals, a bounce house, beanbag toss and miniature fire truck ride. Sporting the theme of "outer space," students celebrated and also shared accomplishments in drama, dance, music and visual arts.

Parkwood High School art teacher Frank Meier, festival organizer, said his school picked up the VSA festival that had been held at Piedmont High School for 14 years. "It was too important to a lot of kids," Meier said.

The UCPS Very Special Arts Festival began in 1994, given by Piedmont High School’s National Arts Honor Society (NAHS). It raised more than $200,000 for special needs children over its 14 year history. It ended, however, in 2008 when the festival outgrew its organizers and the school at which it was held. It had grown in attendance to about 1,700 students, parents and volunteers, with a price tag that reached almost $30,000 each year.

"It's such a relief that Parkwood High School has taken up the festival," said Piedmont art teacher Tracy Price, the former VSA director when held at Piedmont. "It makes me proud that it's an event that people cared so much about that it was not dropped. The county and the community came together and all of the schools volunteered. It just makes it even more special."

After being greeted by a group of cheering high school students as they exited the bus, special needs students were then buddied with student volunteers who assisted them in their participation at the festival.

"It's great for the special needs students because they get to come out and experience art and just be able to come have fun," said Keith Womack, 18, president of Parkwood's chapter of the National Art Honor Society. "For us, it's just so uplifting. It's such a great cause."

Meier said the event was met with such success at BHESA that organizers are looking at possibly having it there again next year. The Union County Community Arts Council helped sponsor the event.

Written by: Deb Coates Bledsoe, UCPS Communications Coordinator
Posted: May 05, 2011 by Deb Coates Bledsoe

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