FESTIVAL OF TREES
Devastation overcame Laurie Running when she found out her oldest daughter was developmentally disabled more than 30 years ago.
Her daughter, Natalie, was 1 year old at the time when they received the diagnosis that she was severely globally developmentally delayed at a Twin Cities hospital. She became severely mentally and physically challenged.
“It was total devastation,” Running says. “It was very hard. It’s a grieving process,” she said.
She credits her husband, Brad, and a strong family support system for helping them get through the tough times of raising their daughter. “Our friends were there for us,” Running said. “People didn’t know what to say, but they were there for us. Nobody shied away from us.”
Running said her daughter’s diagnosis turned her life upset down. She absolutely adored being a teacher, but had to give it up because Natalie’s needs were so great. The family moved to the area about 30 years ago.
Since then she has found a way to champion those suffering from being mentally challenged. She serves as the director of Advocates for Developmental Disabilities of Steele County and operates out of a small office at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Owatonna.
“I didn’t want to do this,” she admits. “But here I am 28 years later. It was because of Natalie that I got into this. I care about this as much as when I first started.”
Running is in the middle of organizing the organization’s largest fundraiser of the year, the Festival of Trees.
The opening night will be Friday, Nov. 17 at 7:30 p.m. at the Holiday Inn in Owatonna. The group hopes to raise more than $33,000 from the event.
The festival will feature a silent auction of 100 baskets, along with entertainment, wall of wine, cash bar, hors d’oeuvres and dessert. “The festival is truly a celebration of giving,” Running said. “We’re well-known for one of the best silent auctions.”
She said many people utilize the fundraiser as a great opportunity to purchase gifts for the holidays.
Prior to the festival, the organization solicits tree sponsors. All the trees, ranging from 4-foot pencils to 7 ½-foot pines, will be on display through Nov. 25. The group has sold 50 artificial trees, and they will be decorated for the festival.
“It’s an awesome way to kick off the holiday season,” Running says.
All the money raised, Running said, will benefit families and individuals with disabilities.
Most importantly, Running said the festival is a way to serve the needs for the developmentally disabled in Steele County. The festival, which is in its 27th year, started because of the growing needs for disabilities. “We needed to respond to the different needs that can help support the families,” she said.
More children have been diagnosed with disabilities, including ADHD, autism and cognitively delayed, over the past 10 years, according to Running. The agency currently serves about 200 families in the county each year.
The group operates KOOL Kids on the Block, which is a disability awareness/bullying prevention program. KOOL Kids is designed to increase awareness, sensitivity and acceptance of individuals with disabilities through educational puppet skits and hands on learning stations, Running said. There are about 2,000 kids throughout the county involved in the program. It has gained popularity at Blooming Prairie Elementary School.
Running said many people are unaware that her agency is available. “People are embarrassed to ask for help,” she said. “No one should feel embarrassed or ashamed.”
The struggles can be immense for disabled people. “We’re here to help make the person’s life with disabilities and teach the community that they belong in the community just like the rest of us,” Running said. “We’re all more alike than different and we need to embrace that. We need to respect everyone,” she added.
About 10 years ago, Running’s daughter moved into a group home in Owatonna. “We call her our little angel and she is,” Running said. “Natalie is the greatest blessing we could have ever received in our family.”
Something as simple as a smile coming from Natalie, who is non-verbal, has taught Running to embrace life more. “She has the most incredible smile,” she said. “Her life is so simple. Just going over there and saying hi makes her day.”