Sunny weather beamed down Saturday afternoon as many from in and around Loudon County flocked Lenoir City Park for the Festival of Friends, a yearly event that provides people with disabilities the chance to take part in water activities free of charge. The event is made possible through the Lenoir City Parks and Recreation Department, Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center and the Pilot Club of Lenoir City.

“It’s been a great event for Lenoir City,” Steve Harrelson, parks and recreation director, said. “It gives us an opportunity to help out with an event that targets folks with disabilities, and it’s kind of unique because they’re able to use the lake as far as the boating and skiing and those type of events that maybe they just normally on a day-to-day basis can’t be a part of. Patricia Neal rehab center does a great job of bringing their adaptive ski equipment in and bring a lot of volunteers in with their boats and so forth. It really caters to those folks and gives them a chance to enjoy the lake.”

Free food was provided by the Pilot Club and Piney Ruritan Club.

“We’re trying to strive that it is not just, you know, you don’t have to be handicapped or anything to come,” Pam Graves, with the Pilot Club, said. “It is a festival of friends is basically — that’s why it was named that. And we love to see everybody.”

Initially, the event was started by the late Randy Gaston, who passed away in 2003. Randy’s mother, Susie Gaston, had missed the last couple years, but she made a note to attend Saturday.

“He had this big idea,” Susie said. “You see, he was paralyzed in a wheelchair himself, and he had an idea that he wanted for people like him, handicapped people, to have fun. He thought, ‘Well, if I get them all together and call it a festival of friends then they can get together and do whatever they can do. We’ll have food and drink and everything and we’ll just have a good time.’ And that’s what he wanted them to have, a good time.”

For Susie, having Randy’s festival carry on after his death is “wonderful.”

“I’m really proud of it,” Susie said. “I know Randy, he would be so proud to see all these people.

“And I know this year we’d be having some singing,” she added, laughing. “He loved to sing.”

Al Kaye, Innovative Recreation Program coordinator with Patricia Neal, said Festival of Friends’ attendance is largely based on how the weather holds up. The weather this year was “much better” compared to last year, when it was raining just before it started that morning. Kaye fitted water boards so each disabled participant could ski comfortably.

“We have all these lakes around here and it’s good for them to get and enjoy it just like anybody else,” Kaye said.

The Patricia Neal IRC program offers people with disabilities a chance to do things they could not otherwise, such as adaptive water skiing, adaptive scuba diving and adaptive golf.

Tellico Village resident Jason Graening said he has come the past three years to Festival of Friends, and overall has avidly participated in Patricia Neal’s water program each year since.

“I absolutely love the opportunity that Al gives us,” Graening said. “I heard about this from Jane Terry a few years ago at (Shangri-La Therapeutic Academy of Riding). She mentioned it, and it just sounded like so much fun, and I had never done it. I come out here, (Kaye) measures me up for the skis and I go out there. First time I go out I’m popping straight up like I’d been doing it for years and it was my first time doing it. It’s a wonderful feeling, and I’ve done it every time that I can since.”

Molly King, out of Oliver Springs, has attended the Festival of Friends for years. She said she likes to take advantage of the adaptive ski equipment so that she can participate in a sport.

“Getting out there on the water, being able to do a sport, participating in sports” is great, King said. “... I used to ski more often. I have a son now so sometimes I’ve got other things to do.”

Jane Terry, who has been a volunteer with her two twin daughters, Anna and Sarah Johnson, for the past three years, said she comes each time just because “it’s an amazing group of people.” Terry’s husband, Larry, also attended for the first time.

“It’s just being with these people and the group at large, both the participants and the volunteers,” Terry said. “It’s an amazing group of people, and it brings such a benefit to people who deserve the benefit. It’s super.”