Wake County

Raleigh carnival for special-needs kids is organizer’s legacy

Beth Gaul, from Raleigh, makes a face as she shows her daughter Caroline, 3, a three-week-old chicken at the 15th annual Special Needs Carnival for Children at The Brooks Avenue Church of Christ in Raleigh, N.C. on Saturday, April 11, 2015.
Beth Gaul, from Raleigh, makes a face as she shows her daughter Caroline, 3, a three-week-old chicken at the 15th annual Special Needs Carnival for Children at The Brooks Avenue Church of Christ in Raleigh, N.C. on Saturday, April 11, 2015. Al Drago

When Barry and Paula Woodhouse started the Spring Carnival for special-needs kids and their families 15 years ago, they wanted it to be a fun day for the children and hoped that it would relieve some stress for the families.

They wanted to show the parents that they were not alone.

Their oldest daughter, Melissa, 23, has a rare developmental disorder, called Smith-Magenis syndrome, that causes her speech problems and hyperactivity. But her mother says she’s also social, loving and funny.

“There is so much stress on these families and so much extra work,” Paula Woodhouse said. “When you have a child with special needs, you’re constantly at the doctor, at the therapist. Your daily routine is a challenge... This was a way to show them that we love them and care for them.”

So far so good.

The free event at Brooks Avenue Church of Christ has grown, nearly quadrupling attendance numbers since it was started in 2000. Nearly 1,200 people showed up to the party on Saturday.

There were bounce houses, inflatable slides, face painting, food, snow cones, a petting zoo and many smiles going around.

Just one thing was missing: Barry Woodhouse.

Barry Woodhouse died last month from an apparent heart attack. He was 54. Paula Woodhouse said she walked into their bedroom where he lay, not breathing. Her husband was a stay-at-home father of three girls. He was the main caregiver of Melissa for all of her life. He cared about her just as he did his other two girls.

That’s why we started the carnival, Paula Woodhouse said.

Before the event, a representative from Gov. Pat McCrory’s office presented Paula Woodhouse with a proclamation, declaring April 11 “Special needs day at Brooks Avenue Church of Christ” for the couple’s hard work and dedication toward the community.

“It can be very challenging and demanding for families to take care of children with health conditions,” McCrory said in a news release. “The carnival is an event that the special needs community looks forward to every year because they can relax and simply enjoy the day and each other.”

Barry Woodhouse’s father, Ed Woodhouse, walked around the event with a big smile. He spoke to everyone he passed. Many had participated in the event since its beginning. Others were newcomers.

“It’s indescribable,” he said about the carnival. “It’s just more than you can imagine. It’s touched so many lives, not only people from this area but across the nation. I am extremely proud of him and his legacy, but he wouldn’t want any credit. That’s who he was.”

When asked about his loss, Ed Woodhouse paused to think.

“It’s a shocking tragedy and something you don’t dream of, that your children will go before you,” he said. “But he was a wonderful Christian man. So his life lives on in the hearts of hundreds and hundreds of people you see here today.”

Believing in a dream

Melinda Oldham, special needs ministry co-coordinator at Brooks Avenue Church of Christ, helped organize the event with the Woodhouses for many years. She said she believed in their dream to have a fun day for children with special needs.

“And as I’ve gotten older and have had my own children, who are typically developing, I’ve realized more and more and more how important something like this is,” Oldham said. “Because I can take my children to all sorts of things all the time, but these families cannot always do that. They get sensory overload so very quickly. Or just the stares from people who don’t understand.

“So this is just for them. If anybody has a meltdown and they get overloaded, then somebody is going to hold on to their bags for them for a minute or not help them at all. But they aren’t going to stare at them.”

The carnival is one of the many events the church hosts and Barry and Paula Woodhouse supported.

Oldham began volunteering at the church in 2005 and taught in the special-needs class. She became a staff member in 2010 to lead the ministry for children with special needs, after the class grew large. She said more and more families were wanting to attend the church.

“Something that we see a lot of our special-needs families lose is the ability to go to church,” she said. “We hear the story far too much, that special-needs children can be a distraction to a worship service.”

Mixed emotions

This was Paula Woodhouse’s first year at the carnival without Barry Woodhouse. She said if he were at the event, he’d be walking around bossing his crew, trying to make sure everything was perfect for the children.

Friends came up to hug her and comfort her as she sat down. Every now and then she wiped her tears away.

“It’s mixed emotions,” Paula Woodhouse said. “Happy in the sense that this was probably our favorite day of the year. Sad in a sense that he is not here with me. It’s very hard. But wanting to not disappoint him, and wanting it to carry on. It’s a sad day. I miss him really bad.”

But with the help of the church and more than 100 volunteers, Paula Woodhouse said the event didn’t miss a beat. It was what she and her husband always wanted and will continue to host – a fun day for kids with special needs. And through that, Barry Woodhouse’s legacy will live on.

Alexander: 919-829-4822;

Twitter: @GarnerCleveland