Not even the cold front that swept through South Florida over the weekend could stop the warm smiles and festivities surrounding FunDay.
More than 400 “special citizens,” both children and adults with physical and/or mental disabilities, from the Broward and Miami-Dade communities were paired with student volunteers as buddies for the day in one of the university’s longest running philanthropic events.
This year’s theme, “Camp FunDay,” transformed the University Center and the areas around it into a wonderland of arts and crafts, music therapy sessions, mystery theater puppet shows, barbeque lunches and a carnival style FunFair.
At the opening ceremony, each of the five colored groups, with such names as the “Orange Flames” and the “Pink Flowers,” gathered at the UC Rock where city of Coral Gables Mayor Don Slesnick addressed the participants.
“What a warm welcome,” the mayor said with a laugh as a special citizen, overwhelmed with excitement, rushed up from the crowd and embraced him.
“Thank you for reaching to special people in the city and making them part of your community,” Slesnick said to the students and organizers.
Groups of buddies, bundled up in their coats and sweaters, danced the morning away with Sebastian the Ibis amidst a colorful camp set up of painted cardboard trees, a mini tent and a sparkling fire.
Gene Zazofsky, a Chartwell’s employee, has been attending FunDay since its initiation by William Butler, the former vice president of student affairs, in 1980.
Although Saturday was Zazofsky’s day off, he explained that his belief in the event’s greater cause motivates him to return for more every year.
“FunDay is great because it gives these senior citizens and kids an idea of what it’s like to get away for a while and have fun for a change,” Zazofsky said.
As the groups rotated from one station to another, the special citizens were able to engage in hands-on activities and personally connect with their peers.
In the UC lower lounge, each group took a turn creating silly songs to the tune of “Oh Susanna,” while activity leaders played acoustic guitars in the background.
At one point, the entire room burst into song to celebrate the birthday of a special citizen who afterwards kissed each staff member individually.
Paty Escuder, executive board chair of the event, said that, despite the great responsibility and dedication needed to ensure the success of the student-run event, the efforts were well worth it.
“The process to get to this day has been quite a task, but being here and seeing everyone come together is overwhelming,” she said.
“It’s an amazing experience that’s very close to my heart.”
By the end of the day, both friendships and bonds had been established.
Emily Matos, a senior, found it difficult to say goodbye to her two buddies as they as they made their way back to the vans and buses awaiting them at Stanford Circle.
“I like traditions, especially FunDay,” she said. “This [tradition] is different from the university’s other ones because I feel like I have made a difference in someone else’s life.”
Matos’ buddy, Karen Hochstrater, a resident of one of the participating group homes, Horizon West, echoed similar sentiments.
Hochstrater held an ornamented frame made of popsicle sticks with a photo of the two hugging in front of the Richter Library.
“I had a fantastic day,” she said, smiling. “I love my buddy. I wish she was my buddy all the time.”
Joanna Suarez may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org