TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – A non-profit organization that advocates for the Down syndrome and special needs communities in the Tampa Bay area is headed to the Big Game come February, but it does so much more for families as well.
The organization called F.R.I.E.N.D.S. stands for “Families, Respect, Inspire, Education Network for Down syndrome & Special needs.”
The nonprofit, which was founded in 2007, provides support, resources and activities for people with Down syndrome and other special needs and those who support them.
To raise funds, special needs self-advocates and other volunteers have been working at a concession stand at Raymond James Stadium called “Sideline Salsa” during Buccaneers games.
Ann Foyt is a full-time nurse and the executive director of F.R.I.E.N.D.S. She explained how fundraising efforts during the season, and soon, the Big Game, works.
“Legends, who runs the hospitality at Raymond James, gives us so much money per person who shows up to volunteer, and then we get a percentage of the sales,” she said.
Foyt said the opportunity is great because they can make money for themselves and not have to ask for donations. She said it’s also something that gives volunteers a sense of pride, working an eight-hour shift. Her son Zachary, 22, who has Down syndrome, is one of those proud volunteers.
“Of course, we wanted to bring our self-advocates into it. Zach was all pumped up, he loves the Bucs and he comes in when they start and he fills up the ice for the drinks, he gets all of the stuff out of the back and loads up all of the containers for the water and the soda and the beer. The other self-advocates help with the nachos, putting them together. They also help with cleaning, that’s a big one,” Foyt said.
There are 15 total volunteers working Sideline Salsa for the Big Game on Feb. 7. Five of those folks are special needs self-advocates.
Foyt said everyone is extremely excited.
“They are so looking forward to that. And they get to keep a T-shirt and I think a hat from the Super Bowl… They’re going to have a wonderful time.”
The volunteer opportunity at the concession stand got Zach and two other self-advocates their own restaurant job making money for themselves.
Foyt explained that the manager of a Glory Days restaurant was volunteering at the concession stand and made the offer.
“When [the volunteer shift] was all said and done, he goes, ‘I’d like to offer your self-advocates jobs and I was just floored. And I thought, ‘well, why not?'” Foyt said.
The three self-advocates go to work in the mornings and work for about three to four hours, rolling silverware and doing other tasks.
“They’re making minimum wage, they’re bringing home a paycheck. Zachy is just thrilled that he’s going to have his own money and the first thing he wants to buy is Disney tickets!” his mother laughed.
Foyt wants employers to understand that hiring those with special needs is important and that if they have a job available, like rolling silverware, busing tables or bagging groceries, to consider the adult self-advocates at F.R.I.E.N.D.S.
“Employers don’t realize that hiring special needs adults, that’s their life. You can give them any job, meaningful job, that nobody else wants to do, and they will take a great sense of pride with that job and do it to their fullest ability, which is usually ten times better than anyone else could do it,” she said.
Foyt is hopeful F.R.I.E.N.D.S. will raise enough money this year during the ongoing pandemic to open an activity center, where she can help folks find jobs.
F.R.I.E.N.D.S. has a variety of services, including resources for parents of special needs children known as the “parent packet program.” The packets can be requested and are available in both English and Spanish.
The organization is also very event-based for both children and adults. Events have gone virtual this year and Foyt said virtual events will continue even when groups are able to meet again, as many have made friends via Zoom in states like Colorado and New Jersey.
F.R.I.E.N.D.S. is still accepting members. The membership form can be filled out online. Those willing to volunteer or need more information can contact Foyt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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