HUG advocates for inclusion and connects people with disabilities to social events and activities

Community Inclusion Award

At Help Us Gather, we are thrilled when we hear of a business, organization or individual going out of their way to be inclusive. We want the entire Tampa Bay area to know about the amazing efforts that are happening right here in our community. HUG is happy to highlight those who are going above and beyond to include people with special needs. If you have any recommendations on who should receive the next Community Inclusion Award, send an e-mail to events@helpusgather.org.

July 2019: Jessica McKnight Photography

HUG noticed many people with special needs were not getting the opportunity to be featured in photos or advertising and decided to host a Photo Shoot Day. Jessica McKnight donated hours of her time, shooting and editing photos of people with disabilities who don’t often get a chance to take high-quality pictures.

“I believe in treating all people with dignity, respect, love and kindness,” said McKnight. “We all have the power within us to make someone happy, we just have to use it.”

In fact, McKnight is so committed to making sure her business is inclusive, she recently expanded her studio at 1433 S. Fort Harrison Ave in Clearwater, adding space on the first floor to accommodate individuals in wheelchairs.

You can find out more information and book a photo shoot at JessicaMcKnight.com.

May 2019: iFLY

Learning to skydive is a bucket list must for most adventure enthusiasts. It’s also an activity that most individuals with disabilities, especially those who are wheelchair-bound, rule out. That is, until now.

All Abilities Night at iFLY is a unique way to make the dream of flight a reality for individuals with special needs. This program has been custom-designed for teens and adults with physical and cognitive challenges.

Instructors work closely with the fliers, making sure they felt prepared for exactly what they were about to experience in iFLY’s giant wind tunnel. iFLY can even outfit fliers with a special brace to keep their legs in place while they’re in the air. Fliers enter the wind tunnel with one or two instructors, who hold tight to keep the flier safe.

You can learn more about iFLY & book a flight here.

April 2019: The City of Largo’s Recreation, Parks and Arts Dept.

When it comes to getting fit and having fun, the City of Largo’s Recreation, Parks and Arts Department knows everyone should be included. That’s why they’ve been offering adaptive recreation classes since 2006.

“The response from patrons has been positive and staff have said over and over how fulfilling it is to work with special populations,” said Joan M. Byrne, Largo Recreation Parks and Arts Director. “We all win in making recreation, parks and arts open, welcoming and accessible to all.”

The City of Largo offers adaptive fitness, dance and karaoke classes. Classes are only $3 if you have a recreation membership and $6 for all other participants. By keeping costs low, the Recreation, Parks and Arts Department makes their community programs more accessible to families and individuals with special needs.

You can view dates and times for the City’s adaptive recreation programs here.

March 2019: Bobby Lewis

HUG first met Emmy award-winning reporter Bobby Lewis when he put together a news story for Channel 10 WTSP about HUG’s Beyond Beautiful Fashion Event. Lewis is a reporter who finds good news to report and shares it with the community through his segment, “On the Road with Bobby Lewis.”

Now, Lewis has turned those experiences into a wonderful book called, “Finding Joy Beyond the Headlines.” To celebrate Lewis’ uplifting book, HUG and St. Paul UMC’s Handicapable Ministry teamed up to buy enough copies to give each individual with special needs in attendance a free, signed copy. Lewis also took photos with hundreds of guests.

By sharing inspiring stories of many different individuals, including those with disabilities, Lewis highlights an important social connection that we all share. You can read excerpts and buy a copy of Lewis’ book here.

February 2019: Dunedin Lanes

At Dunedin Lanes, everyone is welcome, regardless of skill, age or ability. The local business is going above and beyond to make sure individuals and families with disabilities are included in the fun and comradery of bowling.

Every Saturday, alongside other competitive bowling leagues, you will find a group of adults with disabilities exchanging tips, competing and socalizing. The bowling alley hosts the Dunedin Stars, a competitive league for adults with developmental disabilities where all are welcome.

The league provides an opportunity to connect and bond in a fun environment. For individuals with special needs, bowling is not just about the competition; Dunedin Lanes is a place to be socially included.

On any day of the week, individuals of any age with special needs are able to bowl for a discounted rate of $2.00 per game.  Bumpers and ball ramps are provided upon request at no extra charge. By offering a small discount for people with special needs, the bowling alley creates a welcoming environment and provides a fun activity for entire families.

October 2018: Me & U Fitness Academy

When you walk through the front door of Me & U Fitness Academy, you may hear some upbeat music and see the members of the group boxing from a wheelchair or doing balance exercises while holding weights. All abilities are welcome in Tina Tallman’s innovative adaptive fitness class.

Tallman’s current clients include individuals with autism, down syndrome, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and other disabilities. Tallman has a unique ability to blend a class full of people working with different abilities, creating an impactful workout for everyone involved.

Tallman also has special events like a wheelchair rodeo, which is an obstacle course completed using a wheelchair. The members of her class have also been helping to promote adaptive fitness by performing exercise dance routines specifically suited to each individual’s abilities.

July 2018: The Clearwater Marine Aquarium

Finding an organization where diversity is celebrated and inclusion is a top priority is a big deal. At Clearwater Marine Aquarium, the staff loves connecting to people who are inspired by their dolphins Winter and Hope. That’s why the aquarium staff created a program called “Inspirational Stories” to document these special experiences.

On July 28th, Clearwater Marine Aquarium hosted HUG’s friendship group of over 60 individuals with various disabilities. The group was greeted with big smiles, given a VIP meet and greet with Winter the dolphin’s trainer, allowed access to the aquarium for the full day, and each participant was even provided with fun entry photos to take home.

HUG thanks Clearwater Aquarium for its exceptional efforts of inclusion and for making a difference in the lives of countless individuals with special needs.

June 2018: Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office

Help Us Gather (HUG) is pleased to award June’s Community Swag Award to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office for its outstanding efforts of inclusion. On Saturday, June 9th, the first adaptive Sheriff’s Citizens Academy was held at the Sheriff’s Administration building where attendees were treated to an interactive day of laughing and learning with over a dozen deputies.

Friends of HUG got to enjoy fun, exciting activities like virtual firearm demonstrations, self-defense tactics, interactions with K9 officers, exploring police vehicles and a helicopter takeoff and landing.

By creating an inclusive event, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office provided the special needs community with a sense of importance and connection to the community. Help Us Gather commends the Sheriff’s Office for the positive example it has shown and looks forward to other organizations making similar changes.

May 2018: The Ability Experience

Inclusion is as easy as riding a bicycle, and The Ability Experience is here to prove it! Every year, a team cycles more than 800 miles for ‘Gear Up Florida’, a program designed to raise awareness and funds for inclusion. From Miami to Tallahassee, cyclists stop along the way, visiting local organizations with similar missions and passions.

The HUG Team was able to catch up with the cyclists at The Disability Achievement Center and was honored to present the first ever HUG Community Inclusion Award to The Ability Experience for their efforts of inclusion, fun and friendships!

Will Pechous, a cyclist from Kenosha, Wisconsin said, “This ride means a lot to me because I have a twin brother who has a disability. He would kill to be where I am and do the things I do, but he can’t, so, I’m doing this for him. This trip is truly meaningful and represents the ability to be part of something bigger than yourself.”