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As a parent of children with autism, ADHD and at risk of epilepsy, Nicole Taft has spent more than 15 years fighting to get her children the same opportunities that come easily to others. On Saturday, her search took her to the Disability Resource Expo in northwest Gainesville.
“I’ve been coming here for three years,” said Taft. “I learned about a sensory place that’s opening, and I didn’t even know that was happening.”
More than 90 organizations gathered at Trinity United Methodist Church on Feb. 4 for the fourth annual Disability Resource Expo, which started as a Facebook group where parents could share information about services for their children. The organizations showcasing their services included support and advocacy groups, resources for the deaf and blind, cultural and extracurricular opportunities, legal services and recreational areas for children, among other resources.
Marcus Ford, owner of Gainesville Sensory Station, said he and his wife, Jermonica, realized there was a need for resources for children with sensory process challenges in the community when they sought help for their 5-year-old.
“A lot of places are loud and not necessarily conducive to sensory,” Ford said. This inspired the couple to want to create a safe space where children from all backgrounds and abilities can enjoy themselves, he said.
At first, the Disability Resource Expo’s services were destined solely for children. Over the years, the event expanded to include information for teens and adults, and now, it includes health, vision and auditory screenings free to all attendees.
Cheryl Russell, an individualized education program and disability advocate, spearheaded the Facebook group and began collecting a list of all organizations that provided services to children with disabilities. Around 2017, she gathered a group of friends and asked them to start the expo with her, she said.
Russell said she believes there are numerous services and resources in the community but people lack knowledge of what’s available because these agencies typically don’t have the funds for outreach and media.
Gwei Strong-Allen, a student minoring in education at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, learned about the expo from a professor. She traveled to Gainesville with classmates interested in early childhood education to find out whether exhibitors would partner with Beacon’s career center.
“We want to spread awareness to our school,” she said. “And for our education class, we want to spread information about the different career options that students in our school could gain from this expo, like job opportunities or internships.”
A Gainesville Fire Rescue truck was among the entertainment areas available to children. Lt. Scott Robinson said it was a good opportunity to show that his job field is not as scary as many might think.
“A lot of times we meet people on the worst day of their lives,” he said. “So being able to interact with them under normal circumstances gives us a great opportunity to show them what we do on a day-to-day basis.”
The Disability Resource Expo takes place annually during the last weekend of January or the first weekend of February, Russell said.
She added that she is working on creating a website to help community members access resources at any moment. But this requires funding and time which is why she would like to collaborate with larger agencies, she said.
“I would love for the county to reach out. I would love to work together and continue to make this happen and bring it to the next level,” Russell said.