COLUMBIANA - A group focused on bringing special needs education to the county and surrounding areas is growing and working on achieving official non-profit status.
Heroes and Halos volunteers have held two public safety worker trainings at area fire departments recently, and the third annual Safety Day in Columbiana is scheduled for June 28.
Director Kelli Harding said the new safety worker trainings are to show the difference between handling a special needs person versus those without disabilities in emergency response situations.
For example, someone with cerebral palsy may not be able to lay all the way down on a backboard should they need an EMS transport, she noted.
An EMT herself, Harding works part-time for the Columbiana EMS department but devotes the rest of her time to directing Heroes and Halos and its various support groups.
The new free public safety trainings were held at the Perry Township and Winona fire departments and are scheduled for departments requesting them.
"We are not here to teach but to raise awareness that there are different needs and to show them that there needs to be more trainings and that they really need to know their families," she said.
There are three families in the organization that lead the trainings alongside Harding on a volunteer basis.
"It really kind of hits home because the parents share their stories of their children, and firemen and EMS get to meet the kids and build those relationships and make sure they understand the importance of knowing the people that you have in your community and being prepared when you are having an emergency," she said.
Shortly after she had her third child 13 year ago, she was faced with the challenges of adapting to his medical disabilities. Jonathan was born premature and required oxygen, and while he is living as a normal 13-year-old boy now, it wasn't always that way.
"When my son was born I felt alone because I realized there is a huge difference between how people treat a child with special needs. No one wants to be around a child who is sick and crying and on oxygen ... they are afraid," she said.
She turned to the pastor of the East Fairfield United Methodist Church, Susan Antolik, who agreed she could organize a support group there, but it didn't take off quickly.
"I sat by myself for six months at the church and nobody showed up," she said.
The Guardian Angels support group now has up to 138 families, and continues meeting at the church during the summer months. Meetings are held at Das Dutch Haus during the school year.
That group has been around for 11 years, while Heroes and Halos has taken off over the last three years.
"We took the Guardian Angels support group and public safety aspect of it and turned it into this organization," she explained.
Other support groups under the Heroes and Halos umbrella are the Compassionate Friends, geared toward children with terminal needs, Heaven's Angels, for families of children who have passed away, and Broken Wings, for victims of abuse.
The group also offers effective parenting, student ambassador and Pay it Forward programs, and trainings for educators and churches.
A Family Fun Night is held the third Friday of each month, with the next on June 20 at Guilford Lake. All events are free, and a meal will be provided. Siblings of those with special needs are also invited to participate in events, including the Angel Day Camp July 14-18 at Beaver Creek State Park.
The camp is geared toward those with developmental ages of 5 through 16 and registration is $140. The camp will run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. each day and includes lunch.
Harding said this year's safety day in Columbiana will be similar to the last two years, with demonstrations by local fire and EMS officials and STAT MedEvac, and trainings geared toward improving communication skills, addressing sensory needs, and others.
Free concessions will be available through Joe Radman, who has donated a concession stand, she said.
Events planned for later in the year include a 5K walk/run and special needs fun run on Sept. 20 at the Columbiana High Schools. Proceeds will benefit the Heroes and Halos programs. The special needs run is open to people of any age and admission will not be charged to those with special needs.
A special needs ball will be held Sept. 28 at the Columbiana County Fairgrounds for student ambassador program participants. Harding said about 35 students from various schools are involved, and the motto is "Be courageous and stand up for others."
"Each of them has been told to find a student or family member within their community and try to make a difference in their lives and make positive changes and make sure they are loved and taken care of. The students are doing a great job with that," she said.