Lisa Westerfield’s adult daughter Katie loves to paint and play basketball and wants to learn to play golf.
She wanted to get a job when she left high school, her mom said, “but there just weren’t that many opportunities available to her.”
Katie has Down syndrome, and along with many other area residents with physical and mental challenges of all kinds, needs stimulation and opportunity as much as anyone else.
“She went to school when she was younger, but eventually, she aged out. Once you exit the school system, people tend to think you’re doing OK. These are people with special needs that are as diverse and personal as the individuals themselves. They are not needy people. They are people looking for enrichment, education and activity, just like everyone else,” Westerfield said.
Her search for opportunities for Katie led to some possibilities but also a lot of frustration. She and other parents and friends of people with special needs decided to do something about that.
They started The Friendship House, a group dedicated to creating opportunities for their loved ones and cultivating a culture of inclusion and possibilities, with community partners.
So far, the group has put on many events, like a Friendship Camp at Tickfaw State Park .
On April 7-9, Westerfield and a legion of volunteers from the River Region Art Association and The Rock Church made it happen. The three-day camp included sports, games and art for a group of about 30 participants.
“She approached us out of the blue,” said the Rev. Blake Melancon, pastor at The Rock Church in Gonzales, who commandeered the grill, cooking hamburgers for the camp participants and volunteers.
Church officials were worried at first that they wouldn’t have the space to accommodate that many people in wheelchairs, Westerfield said, which was quickly resolved when it turned out only one participant required a chair.
Westerfield said this kind of misconception about what it means to have special needs is common, and she’s on a mission to let the world know how unique every person in the group is.
These campers have lives; they go to the gym, they go to work, and they want human connection, Westerfield said.
Their special needs are special to them. “Everyone’s different. Everyone,” she said.
Connecting with other families who were facing the same obstacles for opportunities for their loved ones is what kept Westerfield going, she said, and she wants to make sure they can all come together and help each other.
“We’re very flexible; we’re very welcoming. We want everyone who wants to participate in our events to participate,” she said.
“Each one of these individuals was created by God, and each one has individual gifts. We have a responsibility to create opportunities for them to share those gifts with the world,” she said.
The Allied Health Program at Dutchtown High, the RRAA, and Rock Church provided volunteers to help make the camp possible, she said.
The Friendship House is a new nonprofit, working on securing 501(c)3 status.
For information, visit www.friendshiphouse201.wix.com/friendshiphouse.