Special Woodstock brings a feeling of togetherness

Special Woodstock’s Shelley Smiley Vaags sings and is accompanied by Greg Kitchen at its 2012 annual musical event. - Andrew Leong/file
Special Woodstock’s Shelley Smiley Vaags sings and is accompanied by Greg Kitchen at its 2012 annual musical event.
— image credit: Andrew Leong/file

There are tears in Shelley Smiley Vaags’ eyes as she shares memories of Special Woodstock.

“You’re going to make me cry,” she said.

The music festival, in its 15th year, was Vaags’ idea, something that came to her when she was earning part of her living playing music for those with developmental disabilities. It all started when she answered an ad in the paper, when the staff at what was then Victoria’s Glendale Lodge were looking for people to sing and play for their special needs’ clientele.

Vaags and her dad, Len, auditioned and she got the job. She worked there for three years, until the institution closed; Vaags then spent a number of years performing in special care homes.

“It was the best job ever,” and the reason she started Special Woodstock.

The festival, being held on Aug. 17 at Providence Farm, is a day of festivities where the stage is shared by professional singers and those with developmental disabilities. There’s something for everyone: face painting, an instrument-making workshop, a tea garden, a magician, stilt walkers, cupcake decorating and more.

“It’s pretty wonderful the Lions Club took a chance on us all those years ago,” the singer said. Today, Lions Clubs up and down Vancouver Island, as well as on the Gulf Islands, sponsor the event, which is also funded by attendees’ donations.

Given the population, Vaags has included all sorts of special touches for those who attend. To name a few: the property is wheelchair accessible and for those who can’t or don’t want to eat the pizza, hamburgers and hot dogs available there are blenders and microwaves for those who need their food specially prepared.

People with a variety of special needs — including those who are autistic, have Down’s syndrome, are brain injured, para or quadriplegic, or have spina bifida — and their families wouldn’t miss the much-anticipated annual event.

Fifteen years ago, when the festival started, Darren Petrie, who is autistic, joined his siblings on the stage as they sang O Canada. According to Vaags, the boy wouldn’t speak, or look anyone in the eye.

Today, Vaags said Petrie’s repertoire has expanded beyond Canada’s national anthem. What’s more, he now has no problem sharing a mike, or making eye contact with the crowd.

“He keeps his Woodstock hat by the door, waiting eagerly for next year’s performance,” Vaags said.

Singer Rick Scott, she added, another attendee, who’s one of the headliners this year, usually brings his granddaughter who has Down’s syndrome with him.

Vaags said the award-winning singer-songwriter, who has three Juno nominations to boast about, produced an incredibly poignant YouTube video called ‘Angels Do’ starring Scott and his granddaughter. The video celebrates special needs’ children.

On a page at the New Songs for Peace Website, http://www.newsongsforpeace.org/songs-scottrick1.html Scott says, “When my grandchild was born with Down’s syndrome, I was overwhelmed with my own ignorance. But very soon I realized that our family had been given a chance to live with a real live angel.

“This is not the Hallmark card kind of angel. In fact, when you go out into public with this angel, people may shun you or not want to look your way. But such an angel can open your heart in ways unimagined, show you a world you never before dreamed of and teach you what compassion really means.”

It’s the kind of world Vaags dreamed of when she started the event in 1999 and one she continues to hold dear.

“(Special Woodstock) is a reminder to everyone of how wonderful the world would be if we were all accepting of each other,” Vaags said. “People leave with this belief in mankind and that everything’s going to be OK; there’s so much negativity in the world.”

Your ticket

What: Special Woodstock

When: Sunday, Aug. 17, 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Where: Providence Farm, 1843 Tzouhalem Road

Admission: By donation

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