CONFLUENCE, Pa. – Busloads of people arrived at Youghiogheny River Lake and soon the park was filled with kids running around, games and dancing to music in the outdoors. Adults and children lined up for hot dogs and baked beans. The smell of freshly popped popcorn filled the air.
A bright red 1941 tractor puttered along, pulling a trailer filled with visitors singing camp songs along with a guitar player. Faces young and old peeked into a large metal trap to learn about a tranquilized black bear.
Volunteers helped smaller children don life jackets and board a boat for a ride around the lake. Park rangers and lake staff helped novice anglers unhook little fish caught at the pond below the dam.
It was the 49th annual Youghiogheny Special Recreation Day, an event tailored specifically to provide a range of outdoor activities and games for children and adults with special needs.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District organizes the yearly event in partnership with several outside groups, including the Lions Club International, Friends for the Youghiogheny River Lake, Pennsylvania Game Commission, Pennsylvania Waterways Conservation Officers, Turkeyfoot High School, and other volunteers.
Vince Klinkner, the resource manager at the Youghiogheny Lake, has attended and overseen the event for 13 years. He said he was thankful for the cooperation and assistance from partnerships to keep the event going strong for so many years.
"That's the only thing really that keeps this going," Klinkner said. "We have 11 folks here on staff. It takes way more than 11 to put this on."
Local special-needs children and adults from numerous school districts and townships in the Confluence area look forward to the annual event.
Paige Lupyan, a natural resource specialist for the Southern Area of the Pittsburgh District, detailed the unique opportunities available for their special guests.
"The best part is the kids’ enjoyment and them getting to see and do things that they wouldn't normally do on a day-to-day basis," Lupyan said. "Like the bear, I think everyone loves it. It's something you might not see in your lifetime, but they get a chance to see it here."
Volunteers also play a significant role in ensuring the success of the event. Local, as well as out-of-state, volunteers return annually to participate in the festivities.
Jamie Walker, a native of Somerset County, has been volunteering at the event for more than 10 years.
"We've been coming down just to support the cause," Walker said. "It's nice to see something like this happen in sort of my backyard. A lot of smiling faces."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District has operated Youghiogheny River Lake and Dam, since 1944. In addition to providing residents with outdoor activity areas, building a dam along the Youghiogheny River allows the corps to manage water levels, reduce downstream flooding, address and contain pollution concerns, and provide hydroelectric power to 8,000 homes.