For one night

Since 2008, “Very Important People” enjoy a carnival ride during a Friday-night Fall Festival kick-off event. (Submitted photos)

Since 2008, “Very Important People” enjoy a carnival ride during a Friday-night Fall Festival kick-off event. (Submitted photos)

The Lions Club’s VIP Carnival to kick of Fall Festival helps some very special kids make some very special memories


By Abby Walton

When a child is diagnosed with special needs, a family has to adjust their ideas of what’s considered “normal.” Outings take a little bit more planning and often, it’s the adults who come away emotionally drained after enduring stares or comments from people who just don’t take the time to step into their shoes. Incidents like this can make families feel isolated.

However, in Zionsville, the Lions Club holds a yearly event to make sure these families know they aren’t alone.

Dedicated volunteers, like Tom Schuler make VIP night possible each year since its inception in 2008.

Dedicated volunteers, like Tom Schuler make VIP night possible each year since its inception in 2008.

“The idea for the VIP Carnival came from reading about a Lions Club in Texas,” said Leigh Ann Akard, former president of the Zionsville Lions Club.

Akard said before one of their festivals, this group would open the carnival to families who had a member with special needs.

“As I was reading the article, I thought about our club and right off the bat I could think of three members who had a relative with special needs,” Akard said.

Knowing there were more families in the community who faced these challenges, the Lions Club created the VIP Carnival to kick off Fall Festival.

“We really try to gear this event toward the whole family and tailor it to their needs,” Akard said.

Phil Howard, a Lions Club member, said when he heard about the idea in 2008, he immediately wanted to be involved. Howard is one of many families in the area who has a child with special needs. His son, Chris, has Down Syndrome so Howard said he understands what these families go through on a daily basis.

“We really wanted to focus on the person first and the ailment second,” he said.

Howard worked the carnival that first year, but by year two, Akard said he needed to experience it with his son.

“So Chris and I went to the carnival and when we got there, he saw several of his friends from the Best Buddies program. So he turns, looks at me and said, ‘See ya, Dad’ and took off with his friends. For me, it was the first time in 16 years I was able to have a typical kid experience with my son. I always had him within eyesight and now, here he was, blowing me off to hang out with his friends. I loved it,” Howard said.

Along with families or caregivers, Akard and Howard said the VIP, which stands for Very Important Person, Carnival also gives kids from the Best Buddies program at Zionsville Community Schools a chance to interact for the first time.SONY DSC

“We have 20 kids with special needs who are the buddies and we pair them up with a team of students,” said Karen Cohen, the advisor for the ZCS Best Buddies program.

Since school starts a few weeks before Fall Festival, the VIP Carnival is one of the first outings for Buddies and their new friends.

“It’s always fun to see them because you can tell the students aren’t quite sure what to do, but by the end of the carnival, they’ve figured it out and are having a great time. It’s really a way for them to connect and then continue building on that experience throughout the year,” Howard said.

This year’s VIP Carnival will take place on Sept. 6 from 5 to 8 p.m. at Lions Park in Zionsville.  Registration starts at 5 p.m. and the VIP rides are free until 8 p.m. That night includes dinner for the VIP and their immediate family or caregivers and wristbands for two to enjoy unlimited rides at the carnival.

“We really want to make this a stress-free event for the family, so we also have extra, professionally trained staff and “Designated Riders” to help the families,” Akard said.

Sponsors like the Behavior Analysis Center for Autism in Zionsville, Chick-fi-la and many others also provide their services to make sure the VIP Carnival is a free event.

“We just want everyone to leave with a smile on their face,” Akard said.

While it may only be for a night, this event lets families know they aren’t alone. That, in fact, there are many people in their community, who know exactly what it’s like to be in their shoes. For more information about the VIP Carnival, look them up on Facebook or visit

Current Morning Briefing Logo

Stay CURRENT with our daily newsletter (M-F) and breaking news alerts delivered to your inbox for free!

Select list(s) to subscribe to

By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Current Publishing, 30 S. Range Line Road, Carmel, IN, 46032, You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact