Inclusive Events Bring Festival Culture to ALL

Making the festival experience sensory friendly and inclusive for all was a primary goal for the organizers of the Sourland Music Festival. To do so, they turned to Amy Pinder, co-founder of the successful Inclusion Festival.

Not long after her son began early intervention, Tatiana Fulmer attended a sensory-friendly performance at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey. “I know from my own experience taking my son places that an ordinary event becomes extraordinary to prepare for in a way that is not positive. Simply brushing one’s teeth…putting on shoes… can be difficult for those with sensory issues. You create an exoskeletal because there are constantly looks. When my son is upset, I get looks. I deal with judgment in different forms,” she explained. “But (McCarter Theater) had quiet time space and calm time space. It was hyper inclusive and family oriented.”

Finding a space where children with sensory issues could recharge and where parents found commonality inspired Tatiana, who is also a trustee of the Sourland Conservancy, to create a similar space at the Sourland Mountain Festival, which will take place on June 22 from 3-10 pm in Hillsborough, New Jersey. 

“We have access to one of the most beautiful, undisturbed forests in New Jersey. The benefits of the Sourland Mountains should be something that everyone can enjoy. Creating a sensory-friendly space at the festival in particular is important so people can feel purposeful and value and protect the space,” Tatiana explained.

When Tatiana presented her idea to the other trustees, whose collective goal is to provide sustainability, diversity, and inclusion in the Sourland Mountain region, they naturally said yes.

The next step was getting a local organization to sponsor the sensory-friendly place. “I presented the sensory-friendly space idea to a lot of people who liked the concept, but just didn’t have the kind of resources they needed,” she explained. Tatiana didn’t give up, however, and found an opportunity in an unusual place – while talking to her uncle, who owns Anew Life Yoga.

“My uncle told me about a yoga teacher who has an inclusion yoga class and who started her own Inclusion Festival in Pennsylvania. Tatiana continued, “The Inclusion Festival last year was a huge hit, so they’re trying to bring other events to other places. It’s for everyone. Everyone is included. That’s really powerful.”

Tatiana connected with Amy Pinder, a speech language therapist who co-founded Inclusion Festival along with Leah Barron, a special education teacher. Amy also founded Circles of Communication, an integrated therapy and education provider in New Jersey. Inclusion Festival is the nation’s first and currently the only sensory-friendly, inclusive festival for all people.

Amy’s inspiration for creating the Inclusion Festival was personal. “I work primarily with people with autism and other communication challenges. I’ve always been able to relate to people who are different than me. I became a special education teacher and saw how much my students wanted to connect. I started to learn as much as I could about autism, neuroscience, and human development and realized you can’t just concentrate on isolated skills. It needs to be a holistic, whole-body approach to help people become the best they can be…to help them express themselves, act on their ideas, and tap into their talents and passions so they can become a contributing member of society,” Amy explained.

At the same time, Amy was attending music festivals and noticed how people were kind, trusting, and helping one another. “I started to volunteer and got more involved. I met Leah and we quickly discovered we both shared a vision to create a festival that would include all people,” Amy said. It took them about a year to plan the first festival. “It’s hard to convince someone your idea will work when it’s never been done before. It’s hard to create everything from scratch. This year, I’ve had more time to focus on the areas that I’m most passionate about.”

The second annual Inclusion Festival takes place August 9-11 in Jermyn, Pennsylvania (10 minutes north of Scranton).  The entire festival is designed to be sensory-friendly,” Amy detailed. “The music is played at a lower volume, the layout of the grounds is designed to reduce crowding, we have Sensory Zones for relaxation and play with nature, art, music and movement themes. Last year, each zone featured a calming corner. This year, there will be one, a larger calming corner that is set away from the other activities. People who choose this area won’t be isolated but will have the benefit of a dedicated space.”

Another change from last year’s first-ever festival is, “We learned that less is more. We got so many applications for workshops and performers and we didn’t want to say no to anyone who felt inspired to participate. It all worked out, but it was a little bit busy. This year, we wanted to create some calm in between bigger events to help people experience a break so you can tune into what your body needs,” Amy said.

As for what’s next, Amy says, “We think a lot more places should be sensory-friendly. It’s something many venues can and should do. It really benefits everyone. I don’t know many people that don’t experience some level of anxiety in their daily activities. It would help people feel calmer and happier. We’re bringing it to the Sourlands, and a few weeks ago, we did a Sensory Zone at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, NY. We’ll be going to other festivals as well. We’re going to keep producing Inclusion Festivals and Sensory Zones at pop-up events and permanent spaces. And we are expanding Circles of Communication so that we can offer year-round therapeutic and educational programs that reflect our values and beliefs.”

“I tried not to get emotional, but it’s so important to me,” says Tatiana “You have a toe dipped in, and there’s a whole sea underneath and you see all the parents who have to be superheroes because they love their children…it builds a fire.”

Amy said, One of my favorite bits of feedback we got was a photo from a family who tried an aerial yoga hammock at Inclusion Festival, set it up at home, and told us how beneficial it has been for their daughter with autism. We also got a message from a college student who volunteered about how it opened her eyes to the value of teaching people with special needs and her whole career path has been transformed.”

“It’s a big responsibility and a really big honor,” Amy concludes. “I’m grateful for creating something that has a positive ripple effect well beyond the festival grounds.”

One thought on “Inclusive Events Bring Festival Culture to ALL

  1. This is incredible! My son is 11 and has non verbal autism. I’d love to head up something like this in our area in the Bay Area in CA.

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