Photo by Brendan Losinski

Troy Family Daze opening event renamed in honor of longtime supporter

‘The Big Event’ named for community supporter Jeffrey Stewart

By: Brendan Losinski | Troy Times | Published September 19, 2023


TROY — Troy celebrated its annual Troy Family Daze carnival Sept. 14-17, and this year’s event received a special change as its opening day festivities were renamed in honor of a longtime supporter of the event.

For 20 years, the first morning of Troy Family Daze has offered a free, invitation-only event for special needs students in the Troy area, allowing them to enjoy the rides, games and attractions in a quieter, less intense atmosphere.

“We open Troy Family Days, unofficially, with an invitation-only private event, which we have done for years,” explained Olivia McLaughlin, the executive director of the Troy Community Foundation. “We invite special needs students through programs in Troy and adjacent communities. They and their chaperones come out. This year, we have about 300 students.”

This year, the special needs student preview was renamed “The Big Event,” in honor of Jeffrey Stewart, who sat on the board of the Troy Family Daze Committee and was instrumental in starting the special needs preview event.

“This year, we renamed the program to The Big Event. That will be the name going forward,” said McLaughlin. “The city of Troy’s community affairs director, Cindy Stewart, lost her husband, Jeffrey Stewart, a few months ago, and he was very involved in Troy Family Daze. His nickname was ‘Big,’ so we thought (renaming it in his honor) was a good way to celebrate him and his efforts for inclusion for the special needs community.”

“We have been involved in the (special needs preview) event since my husband thought of it 20 years ago,” added Cindy Stewart. “(His death) was a great loss to my family, so when they told me they were renaming it in his honor, I felt so honored and blessed his name can live on doing what he loved the best. He loved working with children and adults with special needs. That they can continue doing something for that population means the world to us.”

Susan Jackson, Avondale Schools skills program adult transition facilitator, is one of the group leaders who escorted some of the students to the event. She said that students in programs such as hers can have a difficult time dealing with large crowds and excessive noise, so having a special day just for these students can be incredibly important.

“We get to utilize our community and be with peers, but in a setting that is not overstimulating for them,” said Jackson. “A lot of our students have autism and disabilities where they are really in tune with their surroundings. It can work in their favor, but it can also be a frustration and distraction. Coming to a fair on a weekend night with tens of thousands of people around, they would last only a few minutes.”

“T.J. Schmidt and Company, which runs our carnival rides, offers them free rides, there are free concessions, there is a lunch, and some of our sponsors do some free giveaways,” McLaughlin added. “We like having a safe, welcoming place for those special needs students in the community who might not be able to attend the event on the regular days because of sensory overload or noise sensitivity.”

Stewart said that having the preview day renamed in honor of her husband was incredibly touching.

“Jeff was on the committee for Troy Daze when the city used to run it. He also was working with the Friendship Club and thought the special needs community needed a day for themselves so they could come here and enjoy it without the big crowds that Troy Daze brings,” she said. “Several years ago, he approached the committee, they talked about it with the city, and this special needs preview was born. I know he’s here with us watching this all continue on. … He always said this was the best part of the Troy Daze festival.”

Maciej Litkowiec, an adaptive physical education teacher at Wing Lake Developmental Center in Bloomfield Hills, was one of the other group leaders bringing students to the event.

“It’s a great social outing for our students and lets them meet other students from other districts. I think the social aspect is very important,” he remarked. “It’s a learning process. They have some disadvantages, but to give them opportunities to be flexible and deal with those obstacles is important.”

He said that even without words, he can tell how much this outing means to his students.

“Our students are nonverbal, but they are coming back and have bright, broad smiles that tell us they enjoy this so much,” said Litkowiec. “It’s great that Troy steps up and gives us this opportunity to come outside and enjoy this event, which is something that they might not get otherwise.”

Jackson said the social aspect that the event facilitates is also very important.

“We get to see our friends from other groups,” she said. “We saw our friends from the Troy Adult Transition program, for instance. It helps them build their networking or just spend time with friends, so this is a great opportunity.”

McLaughlin said that Troy Family Daze as a whole was incredibly successful this year.

“We doubled, and maybe tripled, attendance for the fun run, which is only in its second year,” said McLaughlin. “We have great weather. … It (went) very well.”

She stressed how important an event Troy Family Daze can be for the entire community.

“We have a community legacy,” said McLaughlin. “We have people who tell us about memories of attending when they were young or their kids were very young and they still continue to come back. It’s almost like a homecoming or reunion for the whole community of Troy.”