Congreso Familiar: California’s Largest Gathering of Latino Families of Children with Special Needs

More than a thousand people are expected to gather at Chabot College on August 6 for Congreso Familiar, California’s largest convening of Latino families that have children with special needs. Formerly known as Fiesta Educativa del Norte, the Spanish-language conference has been held on the Hayward campus for more than 20 years.

“The reason we started Congreso,” says long-time organizer, Rocio De Mateo Smith, “was because a conference of this kind is so much more enriching in our own language.”

The conference, with attendance growing every year, offers 50 workshops on subjects such as eligibility for various benefits, tech tools for socio-emotional development, conservatorship, and adult transition. Sessions also focus on how masculinity in Latino culture affects family life, the experience of typically developing siblings, as well as puberty, sexuality, and sexual abuse of children with special needs.

Because of high demand in previous years, this year’s conference will offer three separate workshops on immigration. In these sessions, attorneys provide advice to undocumented family members who have children with special health care needs.

Dubbed a “celebration of our children and our culture,” the conference also provides on-site child care, games, and entertainment for the entire family. In past years, it has featured Mariachi bands, bands comprising youth with special needs, and puppet shows performed by a woman with Down syndrome. The Hayward fire department brings its trucks to show to fair-goers, too.

One way that organizers attract such a large crowd is by making the entire event free of charge for all members of families who have a child with a special need. That means, in addition to mom and dad, grandparents and siblings can attend, too. Organizers also make sure that attendees, some of whom use wheelchairs, can physically get to Chabot College. Attendees in Contra Costa take accessible buses provided free of charge by Contra Costa Arc. BART riders board free shuttles, paid for by the conference, to travel the four-mile stretch between the nearest BART station and Chabot College. As many as 1,000 meals are provided by a local restaurant, El Taquito #2, at cost. Postage, printing, and marketing costs are covered by the State Council on Developmental Disabilities.

In addition to in-kind donations, a volunteer organizing committee of 12 parents and an army of more than 100 on-site volunteers help keep the event’s costs to a minimum. There is only one part-time paid event coordinator. The final price tag of $70,000 is funded by the Regional Center of the East Bay, with a modest amount of program sponsorships from outside organizations.

Most attendees are developmentally disabled clients of the Bay Area’s four Regional Centers (East Bay, Golden Gate, North Bay, and San Andreas), and their families. There are 21 Regional Centers in California, but the East Bay Regional Center is a rarity in supporting such a comprehensive event for the Latino special needs community.

“Congreso Familiar makes families feel like they’re not alone,” says De Mateo Smith. “None of them chose to be part of this community, but it becomes a place where they grow and celebrate.”



by Ling Woo Liu

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