YAI’s Central Park Challenge is New York’s largest event celebrating people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). The roots of this one-of-a-kind gathering go back more than 30 years. In 2020, for the first time, the Central Park Challenge is going online. Although the decision was spurred by COVID-19, it also provides a unique opportunity to be the most accessible celebration YAI has ever held.
“At first it was difficult to wrap my mind around planning a completely remote event,” said Jessica Stinchcomb, YAI’s Manager of Special Events. “But then I realized it would actually give us an opportunity to try new things and invite members of our community outside of the New York area to attend for the first time.”
In addition to a new virtual format, the Central Park Challenge also serves as YAI’s biggest fundraiser. Since YAI gets the majority of its support from government sources, the uncertainty caused by the pandemic lends new importance to mobilizing resources. With fundraising more uncertain than ever, attracting new donors and sponsorships via Central Park Challenge is paramount for the organization. And the virtual format will open more doors than ever before.
YAI’s CEO George Contos agreed, stating this is a great moment for YAI to share the Central Park Challenge message more broadly.
“Although this public health crisis has temporarily slowed us down, YAI has been expanding far outside of the New York metropolitan area. With new programs in California and our recent four-month partnership in Saudi Arabia, we are taking the energy of the Central Park Challenge and sharing it universally with anyone with WiFi access,” Contos said.
The most obvious change for this year’s celebration is that it will take place wherever active participants find themselves that morning. YAI’s 300+ programs will be able to join in the signature 3K Walk remotely in their own neighborhoods and homes.
“The hope is that participants will be cheered on by their local communities,” Stinchcomb said. “Instead of having thousands of people walk through the park together, people can show disability pride in their own neighborhoods.”
This sense of neighborhood unity has been felt more strongly than ever in the months of COVID-19. Countless people have reached out to YAI residences offering food, masks, and anything else that could help. At YAI’s residence in Medford, Long Island, one as-yet-unidentified ally even hung a guerilla “Heroes Work Here” banner. This virtual Central Park Challenge will allow neighborhoods throughout the New York metropolitan area to get a taste of what this event is all about.
Car’Melo Grau-Puig, a longtime YAI Self Advocate who has attended the Central Park Challenge every year since 2012, is also eager to see how the event’s unique format will affect the overall experience. “We have to accept change. What’s going to happen this year is a tremendous idea and it’s going to help raise awareness for people with disabilities and all abilities,” he said. “My advice to people is don’t feel down, this is going to be a new experience, going virtual.”
Although this will be the first time the Central Park Challenge has relied heavily on technology, Contos was quick to point out this is also an opportunity in disguise.
“YAI has always been at the forefront of incorporating technology and innovation into the I/DD field. Our Virtual Central Park Challenge will give us another opportunity to prove just that—when faced with a new challenge, YAI is prepared to leverage technology to increase our capabilities,” Contos said.
Participants in the 4-Mile Run and the 3K Walk will use the Strava mobile app to track their routes and mileage. People in YAI programs will livestream from their phones, tablets, and computers to join the virtual party, which will culminate in a 30-minute “Social DisDancing” party, deejayed by DJ Enuff, a renowned celebrity DJ and longtime YAI supporter. The 1.5-hour celebration will include other guest appearances, live music and entertainment, and will be hosted by news anchor Bill Ritter from WABC-TV.
“A couple of months ago, I never would have imagined we’d be in this situation,” said Contos. “But this year’s Central Park Challenge takes on a whole new meaning. Our organization has faced unimaginable challenges over the past two months and we know there are more to come. Our incredible staff and the people we support have shown resilience that deserves to be celebrated. I feel optimistic that this party will be exactly what our community needs to help heal and move forward stronger than ever.”
YAI’s Central Park Challenge will take place on June 6 at 10:30 am EDT. For more information on the event or how to get involved, please visit centralparkchallenge.org.