The sun shone brightly through the clouds last Sunday as hundreds of parents and their children with autism joined local residents in Baldwin Harbor Town Park for the Hangout One Happy Place Autism Awareness Walk.
The Hangout One Happy Place is a Baldwin-based nonprofit organization that gives teenagers and young adults with special needs a space to socialize and safely engage in activities.
Before the walk began, music blasted from speakers at noon, as young adults on the autism spectrum danced on a stage in the park. Tables were also set up to sell raffle tickets and allow participants to make arts and crafts and decorations.
Event organizers said the walk’s main purpose was to give teenagers and young adults with autism a chance to shine.
“These autistic young adults help me to see the joy in life, and it gives everyone in the community happiness because it’s a gift from heaven to see them shine,” said Baldwinite Angela Lucas, founder and president of the Hangout One Happy Place, who has worked in the Baldwin School District for 15 years in the special-education department. “I feel blessed to have started the Hangout One Happy Place because it gives these young people with any disability a home and a place to hang out and have a good time and just be family.”
Lucas, the Baldwin Herald’s 2020 Person of the Year, said she founded the Hangout One Happy Place in 2019 as a space for teenagers and young adults with special needs to interact with one another while doing activities, such as arts and crafts, games, karaoke singing and dancing.
She said her organization is different from others, though, because she allows the participants — ages 15 to 38 — to choose the activities that they want to take part in.
“There are many programs for special-needs teens and young adults that don’t allow them to have a voice, and I wanted to change that by creating the Hangout One Happy Place,” Lucas said. “This is the first autism walk that my organization has hosted and it definitely won’t be the last.”
Other volunteers shared similar enthusiasm about wanting to honor the autism community and bring about autism awareness at the event.
“We put so much effort into making this autism walk possible for today, and it’s very important because we want it to be about the autistic young adults,” said Baldwinite Emily Orgill, who is the vice president of the Hangout One Happy Place. “We want to show that these autistic young adults are adult people, too, because oftentimes people treat them as if they’re children, and we want their opinions to be heard and for them not to be treated like they’re children.”
Baldwin resident Joseph Gallagher, 22, who has volunteered at the Hangout One Happy Place since late 2020, said he started volunteering there because he has long had a passion for helping people with disabilities.
“People with disabilities — whether it’s mental, emotional or developmental — should all be treated the same and cared for, and I think events like this bring awareness to the community and unites the community,” he said. “These teens and young adults with disabilities go through so many challenges and it’s great to see them having a great time today.”
Baldwin resident Jordan Hemans, 21, who has volunteered for a year at the Hangout One Happy Place, said that he attended the autism walk to support his girlfriend, Maria, and her brother, Johnny, who are both on the autism spectrum.
“This event holds a special place in my heart, and I think that this event shines a light and allows for those with disabilities to have a wonderful bonding experience, which is especially amazing during this dark pandemic time,” he said. “It’s important for us to help out people in Baldwin with special needs, and this event has shown me that we rise by inspiring and lifting up others, and coming together as a community to give back to the autistic community.”
Long Beach resident Kathy Butler’s 28-year-old son Among was the many young adults with special needs to take part in the walk.
“I love the Hangout One Happy Place because this program does not force young adults into a mold, but it is a place for my son to relax and be who he is with other peers,” Butler said. “And my son is in many programs, but this is different . . . This is really where he can be who he is. The pandemic has been devastating to the disabled, but the Hangout One Happy Place has relieved a lot of my son’s isolation during this pandemic time. This autism walk is also just such a wonderful event so far.”
County Executive Laura Curran, of Baldwin, attended the event and gave a citation to Lucas.