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By Andy Diffenderfer

Correspondent

ROCK SPRING, Ga. -- Just getting the message out about services available to special-needs children and adults is a vital first step in helping families, attendees at a recent resource fair in Rock Spring, Ga., said.

"It's hard for families to plan long term, so it's very important to give them the information they need," said Tammy Severino with Annandale Village, a Suwanee, Ga., community serving adults with developmental disabilities. "Unfortunately, families may not know what's out there. It's a great way for people to learn about us and for us to learn what they need."

About 50 service providers, organizations and vendors from Chattanooga to Atlanta were on hand at Georgia Northwestern Technical College recently to answer questions and offer information to families of those with special needs.

"We're trying to get the message across about what we offer and who we serve," said Jan Hollingsworth, public relations specialist with the Siskin Children's Institute in Chattanooga.

The fair, now in its second year, "brings the element of awareness to the area," said Michal Jones, who helped coordinate the event and is a parent mentor with Walker County Schools. Mrs. Jones also has a 15-year-old autistic son.

Attracting a lot of attention at the event was Jerry, a 3-year-old golden retriever and "spokesdog" for the assistance dog program of Chattanooga Goodwill.

"By training a dog like Jerry to assist a person with their daily activities, we can dramatically increase a person's independence," said Ramona Nichols, the program's director. "Fairs are very important to raise awareness about service dogs. Since we're a relatively new program, we're trying to get the word out about what these dogs can do and how they can help."

After about two years of training to learn more than 90 commands, the dogs will be provided free to Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia residents who have physical disabilities, she said.

For the athletically inclined, the No Limits program offers baseball, basketball and soccer for special-needs children and adults, said Pam Rasmussen, whose 13-year-old son Cris has spina bifida and has used a wheelchair since age 2.

"As a parent, the fair provides a lot of information on programs we don't know are available," she said. "It saves you from having do all this research on your own."

Mrs. Jones estimated about 80 people attended the fair. She said last year's event attracted about 30 vendors and that organizers will "probably do it again next year" with hopes for more presenter and public participation.

Andy Diffenderfer is based in LaFayette, Ga. Contact him at andydiff97@comcast.net.

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