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City holds annual Free to Be Me Festival

Children used their critical thinking skills to build fort-like structures from recycled boxes during the Free to be Me festival, aimed to celebrate individuals with special needs with a series of inclusive and adaptive activities. on Sunday at West Creek Park.050524 Katherine Quezada/The Signal
Children used their critical thinking skills to build fort-like structures from recycled boxes during the Free to be Me festival, aimed to celebrate individuals with special needs with a series of inclusive and adaptive activities. on Sunday at West Creek Park.050524 Katherine Quezada/The Signal
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The city of Santa Clarita hosted its third annual Free to Be Me Festival in West Creek Park on Sunday afternoon, featuring various activities and forms of entertainment meant to be inclusive for the city’s special needs community. 

“This event first started back in 2022,” said city arts and events coordinator Cali Nocella. “It was originally formed by [Dena Bogrow], who was seeking an event that was sensory-friendly for her daughter. And she brought it to the city, and we were able to make it happen in 2022 with our first event at the Canyon Country Community Center.” 

The new venue gave the event additional open space and a closer proximity to nature, although the high winds threatened to knock various booths and decorations over. 

“We’re staking everything down, we’ve weighed everything down, and people are rolling with it,” said Nocella. “It adds a nice chill, and we’re glad it’s a nice day out and not too hot.” 

The festival featured a number of different attractions, including several themed “lands” such as “Star Wars Land” and “Adventure Land.” Live music was also available, with some performed by the Include Everyone Project, a performing arts organization featuring children with special needs. 

“[I love] watching them discover things and watching them overcome whatever challenges they have to succeed,” said IEPSCV co-founder Kate White, a friend of the festival’s founder. “And it’s wonderful to watch them explore and be given the opportunity to just play.” 

Bright Star Martial Arts students, many of whom have special needs, performed different skilled moves for the audience to witness and highlight what individuals with special needs are capable of on Sunday at the Free to be Me festival. 050524 Katherine Quezada/The Signal
Bright Star Martial Arts students, many of whom have special needs, performed different skilled moves for the audience to witness and highlight what individuals with special needs are capable of on Sunday at the Free to be Me festival. 050524 Katherine Quezada/The Signal

Several of the booths also belonged to various companies, including food vendors. According to Nocella, the Free to Be Me Festival’s success is dependent on such companies getting the word out about the festival to their customers. 

“A lot of the organizations that are here today have been involved because of our outreach, as well as personal connections within different organizations,” she said. “They all communicate, and they all have great relationships with one another, and so they’ve spread the word for us.” 

The city also accepted volunteers to help support the festival, such as Sofia Franco-Garcia, who was helping to run the city’s information booth. 

“It’s kind of about helping out in general,” Franco-Garcia said. “Obviously, it’s great to help out special needs children, but it’s kind of an ‘everyone’ thing. And I like that it’s inclusive to everyone. The event’s very special.” 

“I think that it’s really special that a lot of people just come together to support special needs children and raise awareness,” she continued. 

Additionally, Nocella has plans for how the next iteration of the Free to Be Me Festival will improve upon this year’s. 

“I think next year, we’ll probably bring in even more organizations, and I look forward to theming it a little bit more.” she said. “Doing things like a Disneyland-esque land. That’s the plan, to really lean into that theming, but also build on the performances that we have. Maybe make the dance floor bigger, elevate it a little more with the stage.” 

Still, Nocella remains proud of the work that she and the other event planners have done to bring this year’s version of the festival to life, glad that more community members are joining in to support the special needs community. 

“We have gotten a lot more interest and excitement from the public and have definitely expanded beyond its original goal this year,” she said. “We’ve implemented different theming, different performances, and new organizations are involved. And so, it’s really cool to see this event evolve and kind of transform with the group as it develops.”

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