Web-first version: Easter basket sale raises money for people with special needs

Lady Bugs and early-bird shoppers take a look at the nearly 900 Easter baskets to be sold to benefit area school programs for people with special needs. (Business Journal photo by Keith Michaud)

Lady Bugs and early-bird shoppers take a look at the nearly 900 Easter baskets to be sold to benefit area school programs for people with special needs. (Business Journal photo by Keith Michaud)

Central Valley Business Journal, March 2012

By KEITH MICHAUD/Business Journal Editor

STOCKTON – Thelma Stewart and her gang of Lady Bugs have been at fundraising nearly 40 years and this year’s is the biggest effort so far.

“I started with 50 baskets,” Stewart said of the annual Easter basket sale to benefit schools serving San Joaquin County residents with special needs. “And then 100 baskets. … It’s close to 900 baskets this year.”

And about a third of those are already sold.

The Easter baskets are sold at a luncheon at her Bristol Avenue home – 340 diners are expected Wednesday (March 21), the largest number ever. The baskets are also sold at the Bank of Stockton, the Bank of Agriculture and Commerce in Stockton and Lodi, and at Southern Exposure on Pacific Avenue on the Miracle Mile in Stockton.

Stewart said she has received phone calls from Sacramento to Modesto and into the foothills expressing interest in the baskets.

“I don’t know how they got my phone number,” quipped Stewart.

Taking a break from luncheon preparations with Easter baskets in every corner and on every surface, Stewart recalled starting the basket campaign in the early 1970s after her son Donnie was diagnosed with Down syndrome. She and her friends – the Lady Bugs – began fundraising for area schools that were ill-equipped to provide meaningful programs for those with special needs.

“We take care of all the schools in San Joaquin County, whatever they need” said Stewart.

This year a core group of friends worked a month and a half to make the baskets.

The Easter baskets are not the only Lady Bug fundraisers, said Stewart. Lady Bugs have poured beer at the San Joaquin County Fair, and held Christmas boutiques and crab feeds.

Stewart won’t say how much the Lady Bugs raise through their fundraisers, but it is enough to maintain a fund to fill at least some of the requests from teachers of special needs people throughout the county.

And enough for a prom for area special needs people. Last year the “Steppin’ Out” prom was at 5 Stars Marina – “It was quite a success” – and will be at the Stockton Golf and Country Club this year.

Stewart is a self-proclaimed “fighter” when it comes to the rights of those with special needs. She pushed to have school officials allow her son walk with his Stagg High School class at graduation, pushed for programs at San Joaquin Delta College. Donnie attended programs at Delta for 15 years before those programs fell victim to the budget knife and now he attends classes at the University of the Pacific.

“I wish more people would be interested in donating and helping these kids. … I just fight the system,” said Stewart. “I fight the system for these kids.”

Too often people fail to believe in people with special needs, said Stewart.

“These kids can learn,” said Stewart. “The parents just need to put them in the right program.”

Contact the author about this and other stories at kmichaud@cvbizjournal.com.

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