Nine-year-old Laura Felix took a giant step toward adulthood Friday during Special Kids Day at the Conejo Valley Days carnival.
Laura and her friend Mary Jan Williams took the leap from the “dinky kids’ rides” to the “bigger, scarier rides.”
“This is my second time here, and it’s much better this year because we’re going on all the good rides,” Laura said as she headed toward the Ferris wheel. “We’re the big kids now.”
For the 400 children who came from schools around Southern California, Friday was a day to test the limits, to try new things and to escape the routine of the school day.
For three hours the children, most of whom have physical disabilities or special needs in the classroom, had the chance to flip on the sirens and lights in a Sheriff’s Department squad car, scream as they flew by on a roller coaster, and stare wide-eyed from the top of the 50-foot Ferris wheel.
“We get to go on all the rides and do anything we want,” said a smiling Keith Casequin, 9, of Yerba Buena. “It’s great!”
The annual event matches each child with a volunteer and allows them to roam free across the carnival grounds. It was first run 13 years ago when a festival official decided to give the children the freedom to enjoy Conejo Valley Days without the hassles and hazards of a crowded park.
“When we first started doing this it was just about 50 kids,” recalled Jo-Ann O’Beirne, who has attended every Special Kids Day. “It started as a grass-root kind of a thing and just mushroomed from there.”
To pull off the annual event, members of the service club Zonta International had to find 400 volunteers to come and assist the children, in addition to bringing in food, drinks, hats, T-shirts and badges for all involved.
Although just about every local service club has events to organize over the course of Conejo Valley Days, the task of putting Special Kids Day together is particularly challenging to the tiny Zonta Club, which has only 28 members.
“It’s really a struggle, but every year we just hope for the best,” said Martha Desch, a member of the club which promotes the advancement of women.
A week before the event, organizers feared they would not be able to pull it off. Fewer than half of the 400 volunteers needed had signed up to help.
But by 10:30 a.m. Friday, every child was spoken for, and the organizers were able to step back and admire what they had accomplished.
“Look at them out there,” Desch said as she viewed the park filled with laughing children on colorful rides. “They’re just living it up.”
In addition to the rides and the food, nearly every child had the chance to play carnival games and win prizes, all of which were donated by the Los Angeles-based company that organizes the games and concession stands for the five-day carnival.
“When they win you wouldn’t believe the way the kids just light up,” said Kristee Blash, 15, as she handed out giant inflated pink lollipops and yellow saxophones. “They are just thrilled.”
In addition to the carnival crews that donated their time to the event, the 400 volunteers included high school students, off-duty police officers and firefighters, politicians, business leaders and others looking for a way to help.
“We’ve got about a dozen firefighters who are taking their vacation days to be here for this,” said Dave Pumphrey, a Ventura County firefighter who gave children tours of a fire engine.
“They come up here and just want to meet us and look at the truck and a lot of them tell us they want to be firefighters when they grow up,” Pumphrey said. “It’s really gratifying for us.”
The carnival resumed Friday afternoon at 5 after two days of low attendance, attributed in part to cool weather. On Thursday, 2,987 people visited the event, down from 3,342 on the second day in 1993.
Conejo Valley Days officials said Friday that they were counting on a surge of attendance over the weekend to make up for the low turnouts the first two days.