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A family commemorates a tragedy by bringing joy to children struggling with tragedy themselves

DAVID F. ASHTON - Payton Erickson held balloons, along with his grandfather, Larry Freres, who was the founder of Mikes Kids Day at Oaks Amusement Park. Many balloons were released that that day at The Oaks, in memory of lost loved ones.  For the eleventh consecutive year, Larry Freres hosted a "Mike's Kids' Day at Oaks Amusement Park" – this year, on July 6 – for families and children who are served by The Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families, on S.E. 52nd Avenue near Foster.

The work of The Dougy Center, in the Creston-Kenilworth neighborhood, includes internationally-recognized services for helping youngsters through the grief of losing a loved one. And that's what inspired Freres to sponsor the first "Mike's Kids' Day" a decade ago, in honor of his late son.

"My son, Michael, was killed on his way home from work one day – now, many years ago – leaving behind our three-year-old grandson," Larry Freres told THE BEE as this year's celebration was getting underway.

"A neighbor told us about The Dougy Center, and his mom began taking his older siblings there," Freres explained. "On the way home from the Center one day, as we were approaching the one year anniversary of my son's death, I was inspired to want to do something to help out the families and kids who've lost a loved one."

When he got home, he started making phone calls. "And the next thing you know, we put together the first 'Mike's Kids Day' for the kids at The Dougy Center. The first year we hosted about 185 people, and it leveled off about 300 for a couple of years; but now, we're providing as many as 600 [Oaks Amusement Park ride] bracelets," Freres smiled. "Creating this event helps me keep my son's legacy alive; he enjoyed seeing families together having fun, and he loved having a good time with his boy and his nephews.

"This special day at Oaks Amusement Park with rides, a free pizza lunch, face painting, and entertainment by Cha Cha the Clown – well, these are all things that perfectly exemplify what Mike would have loved to see."

He and his family hadn't the resources to put on such an event, Freres said, and lauded the many community merchants and donors who stepped up to sponsor the day. This year, the RE/MAX Equity Group Foundation paid for the ride bracelets, Voodoo Doughnuts gave dozens of their famous pink boxes of goodies, and Baskin-Robbins provided ice cream.

Now, at the eleventh year of this special party, "I feel very rewarded about how our personal tragedy has turned such a positive experience in my son's honor, and for so many families – especially young ones, who are experiencing loss," Freres reflected.

Learn more about Inner Southeast's The Dougy Center, itself, online – www.dougy.org

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