South LA

Making special days for children

The community-based nonprofit Your Special Day aims to help children whose parents have chronic illness in the South L.A. area.

Jacqueline Evans was only 12 years old when her father had a stroke that left him partially disabled. As she watched her father go in and out of the hospital, she felt her childhood start to disappear.

“[His disability] had a massive impact on her life and that kind of changed the trajectory of her life,”said Shekalia Johnson, Evans' daughter. “And so a few years ago, she felt like she wanted to provide some kind of support and help for kids that are currently dealing with something similar to what she went through.”

With other families in similar situations in mind, Johnson and her mother decided to launch a nonprofit in September 2017.

Your Special Day is a community-based nonprofit that works to support parents, grandparents and other guardians with debilitating chronic conditions and their children in South Los Angeles and surrounding communities through education, referrals, nutrition and special days.

Prior to the pandemic, children ages 5 through 12 had the option to choose from various special day activities, such as going to a themed arcade, getting a haircut and new outfit or having a celebration party. At the end of the day, the nonprofit team gives each child unique gifts tailored to their interests and needs.

The nonprofit aims to free children from their typical at-home stressors, but COVID-19 restrictions have made this more difficult to achieve. As a result, Your Special Day had to shift gears, thinking of creative and safe ways to continue serving families.

Johnson, the co-founder and programs director of Your Special Day, said the special day program is on hold due to safety concerns, but the “Nutrition 4 All” and “Bridge to Hope” programs are continuing with a larger emphasis on checking up on families. This past summer, Your Special Day, in partnership with Food Forward, delivered hundreds of pounds of fresh produce straight to the doorsteps of disabled families.

“We are not taking any children out on a special day, but we are still delivering produce boxes straight to their doorstep twice a month … And we’re still referring the families to different services that they may need,” Johnson said. “Outside of that, we’re just more connected to our families and making sure that we check up on them, that we ask them if they need anything, and that we talk to the children as well to see how they’re doing because I know it’s very stressful right now dealing with school online.”

Miyana Evans, a student at UCLA, has been volunteering with Your Special Day for the past three years. She said that after the nonprofit started offering COVID-19 relief packages, Your Special Day has been able to reach more participants.

“In a way, [the pandemic] was a blessing in disguise,” Miyana Evans said. “Once we started offering COVID-19 care packages, which we made open to families in general, we were able to get way more participants and those participants just so happen to be parents who have disabilities because they were the ones who needed it the most. They were the ones who weren’t able to make it to a store.”

Rosa Gaitan, resident of Los Angeles, has custody of her three grandchildren. She has received services from Your Special Day since last year and said the organization makes an effort to maintain strong relationships with the families.

“Every time I’m on Facebook, I share [Your Special Day’s posts],” Gaitan said. “And when I’m out there at the bus stop, I tell people about it, especially if I see older ladies with their little grandkids, so that they can enroll if they like ... I’ve seen so many grandmas out there, walking with their stroller and their little kids and carrying groceries. It seems like there’s an epidemic of grandmas raising little kids.”

Despite the nonprofit putting a pause on special days, Johnson said she is impressed with how much progress the nonprofit has made this year and expects more growth in the coming future.

“I’m really excited for future plans,” Johnson said. “We plan on having a physical location where we can have workshops and a safe space where the parents and guardians can come and get support in person. And for the kids, they can have a space where they can come to.”

Johnson said Your Special Day is important to the community because there is a lack of similar programs, especially in the South L.A. and Watts area.

“A lot of places focus on the child having a disability or adults having a disability, but it’s [rarely] a holistic approach where you’re helping the entire family,” Johnson said. “So I’m really excited and happy that we did start Your Special Day because it was definitely a space that needed to be cultivated.”

Gaitan said Your Special Day fulfills its goal in empowering guardians and their children.

“To have an organization like Your Special Day reach out and let me know ‘We see you struggling, here is a little help to show you how much you are appreciated’ means a lot to me, knowing I’m not alone,” Gaitan said.

This article initially stated that Your Special Day assisted children with chronic illnesses when it actually helps children whose parents have chronic illnesses. The article has been updated and Annenberg Media regrets the error.