News Releases

September 18, 2017

SAN ANTONIO – Five compassionate individuals who have distinguished themselves in helping those with special needs will be honored at the 8th annual “Free to Soar” Gala at 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 30, at Morgan’s Wonderland.

The five honorees – Dr. Ana Allegretti of San Antonio, Donya Catlett-Vise of Hot Springs, Ark.,  Bert Pfiester of San Antonio, Mary Scalise of Richmond, Texas and Cory Woodard of LaFayette, Ga.  – will be saluted at the gala, and their names will be permanently placed on the Wall of Fame in the heart of Morgan’s Wonderland.

The fundraiser will benefit non-profit Morgan’s Wonderland, the world’s first theme park designed with special-needs individuals in mind and built to be enjoyed by everyone; next-door The Academy at Morgan’s Wonderland school for students with special needs; and new, ultra-accessible Morgan’s Inspiration Island splash park.

A silent auction at 6 p.m. will precede dinner and other festivities in the Morgan’s Wonderland Event Center.  Lara Logan, CBS News’ chief foreign affairs correspondent, key contributor to the TV network’s “60 Minutes” newsmagazine and advocate for the special-needs community, will be featured speaker.

After the gala, guests will congregate at the Morgan’s Wonderland Starlight Amphitheater for a live concert from 10 to 11:30 p.m. by popular local artist Ruben V, who performs a smooth blend of blues, Latin, soul and rock music.  Guests also can enjoy Morgan’s Wonderland rides including the colorful carousel, Whirling Wonder Ferris wheel and Wonderland Express train. 

Another one of the evening’s highlights will be a 24th birthday celebration for Morgan Hartman, daughter of philanthropists Gordon and Maggie Hartman.  Morgan’s positive outlook despite cognitive and physical challenges inspired her parents to create Morgan’s Wonderland and pursue other major initiatives to benefit the special-needs community.

“Each year we honor five incredibly wonderful individuals who have dedicated themselves to promoting inclusion,” said Gordon Hartman, CEO of The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation (GHFF). “Once again, we received Wall of Fame nominations from coast to coast, and each one was carefully reviewed by a panel of judges from Morgan’s Wonderland and the GHFF.  It’s very difficult to select the winners from so many deserving nominees, however we believe the values exhibited by this year’s  honorees clearly mirror inclusion and other principles on which Morgan’s Wonderland was founded such as caring, determination and sacrifice.”

The Wall of Fame honorees’ noteworthy contributions to the special-needs community include the following:

Dr. Ana Allegretti, San Antonio – Dr. Allegretti, a native of Brazil and an assistant professor of occupational therapy at the University of Texas Health Science Center, specializes in mobility solutions for children with special needs.  For the past 10 years, she has focused on helping people with mobility impairments including veterans, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patients and children with a variety of medical conditions.  Her Go Baby Go project has provided modified ride-on toy cars for young children with disabilities.  The cars enable the children to move themselves independently and participate in play activities, in many cases for the first time in their lives.  In partnership with the Children’s Rehabilitation Institute of Teletón USA, Dr. Allegretti provides the cars to the child and family at no charge, thanks to securing grant funding.  She also played an important role in preparing for the opening of Morgan’s Inspiration Island splash park, fitting new waterproof wheelchairs to ensure safety and mobility for park guests. 

Donya Catlett-Vise, Hot Springs, Ark. – In September 2014, Catlett-Vise’s 7-year-old daughter Ali lost her fight to rare, crippling and incurable Batten disease.  Once the disease was diagnosed, she chose to make each day the best for Ali, and that included a visit to Morgan’s Wonderland.  Inspired by what she experienced, Catlett-Vise  committed herself to building  a living legacy for her daughter in the form of an accessible playground for special-needs children in Hot Springs.  She didn’t have any experience in starting a charitable foundation, yet by sheer determination, she established the Ali’s Angels Foundation and recruited other passionate people to the cause.  A site has been secured, and plans have been developed in pursuit of Catlett-Vise’s ultimate goal – construction of a fully-accessible, barrier-free playground called Ali’s Wonderland.    

Bert Pfiester, San Antonio – Retiring after a distinguished career with AT&T, Pfiester in 2001 became executive director of Respite Care of San Antonio, an organization providing temporary care for special-needs children, thus giving the rest of the family a “respite” to keep the family unit strong and functioning.  He expanded the scope of Respite Care to include a new emergency shelter and residential foster homes near the Respite Care campus.  His relationship-building skills led to significant increases in the organization’s net assets, operating budget and endowment assets.  In 2004, Pfiester became a single father to three siblings ages 5, 4 and 3 who were brought to Respite Care in crisis.  He retired as Respite Care CEO earlier this year, yet he continues his advocacy for special-needs individuals in many volunteer roles such as vice chairman of the board of The Academy at Morgan’s Wonderland.   

Mary Scalise, Richmond, Texas – Scalise, a social worker with Houston’s Casa de Esperanza – House of Hope for Children, has been a foster parent for 53 children.  She is also a single mother, taking care of six children – four of them adopted and three of them with special needs.  She works tirelessly to enrich the lives of the children in her care, making sure they’re included in activities and outings such as trips to Morgan’s Wonderland, sporting events, rodeos and the like.   At Casa de Esperanza, she is dedicated to assisting children in crisis as a result of abuse, neglect or the effects of HIV.  She fights in court and urges governmental agencies to get these children the services they need for better lives.  In addition, she advocates for parents who often have FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorder) and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).       

Cory Woodard, LaFayette, Ga. – A 27-year-old college graduate who happens to have muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair for mobility, Woodard in 2013 started a blog – Curb Free With Cory Lee – that has become an internationally-renowned source of information on accessible travel.  He spends countless hours responding personally to queries from all over the world, speaking at conferences, appearing as a travel expert in national media reports and visiting destinations far and wide so he can communicate the accessibility of those locations.  Thus far, Woodard has traveled to six continents, and his goal is to visit all seven.  He has more than 50,000 social-media followers, many of whom write him to say they have visited the same destinations that he has because they are no longer fearful of what to expect. 

“The Free to Soar gala is one of our most important annual endeavors,” Hartman said.  “Since Morgan’s Wonderland admits anyone with a special need free of charge, admissions revenue doesn’t begin to cover our operating expenses.  Thus, we have to make up a significant operating deficit, and we’ve been able to do so, thanks to generous friends and supporters of Free to Soar.”

 Morgan’s Wonderland, which is completely wheelchair-accessible, features more than 25 elements and attractions including rides, playgrounds, gardens, a catch-and-release fishing lake, 18,000-square-foot special-events center, 575-seat amphitheater, picnic area and rest areas throughout the park.  Check www.MorgansWonderland.com for the latest information on days and hours of operation.

Colorful Morgan’s Inspiration Island splash park that officially opened in June offers six tropically-themed elements – five spacious splash pads and the River Boat Adventure ride.  It will conclude its 2017 schedule Sept. 24 and reopen once warm weather returns next spring.

The Academy at Morgan’s Wonderland – is located next to the theme park and accommodates students with special needs ages 12 through 24.  The school focuses on getting each student ready for independence and employment through reading and math instruction as well as social and life skills and vocational training.  For more information, visit www.MorgansWonderland.academy.   

Morgan’s Wonderland is located in Northeast San Antonio a half-mile west of IH 35 at the intersection of Wurzbach Parkway and Thousand Oaks Drive. For more information, call (210) 495-5888.        

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