During the recent Dragon Boat Races at Solomons Island, 27 teams of business, community, school and church groups rowed against each other on the Patuxent River in sleek boats featuring colorfully painted dragon heads on their bows, surging across the water on a mild summer day.

In the end, everyone was a winner, most especially the recipient of the proceeds from the Aug. 19 charity event – Southern Maryland Community Resources, which promotes inclusion for people with developmental differences into the life of the community and provides a range of social, educational and recreational programs.

Msgr. Michael Wilson – the pastor of Our Lady Star of the Sea in Solomons, whose waterfront parish provided rowing teams from its school and youth group, volunteers who helped stage the event, its front yard for vendors, and its parking lot for visitors – said the community support for the event represented “the best of America.”

“They’re here for somebody else,” said the priest, who serves on SMCR’s board along with other community leaders. “People are having fun and helping people.”

Bonnie Elward, Southern Maryland Community Resources’ executive director, earlier said of her group’s outreach: “We look at ourselves as being a bridge, so the nondisabled community gets to understand individuals with developmental differences.”

Another bridge – the Governor Thomas Johnson Memorial Bridge spanning the river – formed a dramatic backdrop as three teams raced against each other at a time, with 16 rowers and a drummer on each team, guided by a steersman.

The second annual Solomons Island Dragon Boat Festival, which was sponsored by Cedar Point Federal Credit Union and cosponsored by many other businesses in Calvert County and nearby St. Mary’s County, opened with the Pledge of Allegiance recited by Brian McCarthy, who participates in SMCR programs and takes part in the special needs ministry at St. Aloysius Parish in Leonardtown, where he serves as a lector.

“It was an honor to do it,” he said of helping to kick off the event for the second straight year.

As an estimated crowd of between 6 and 7,000 people gathered near the river to cheer on participants and browse arts and crafts at the vendor stands, his mother Julie McCarthy said, “This is amazing. It really warms my heart to see so many people care about these young men and women who are part of the community.”

With the encouragement of Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Potomac Community Resources in Montgomery County partnered with the Archdiocese of Washington’s Catholic Charities and Department of Special Needs Ministries to help replicate similar community based programs throughout the area, including SMCR, which began in 2013.

Southern Maryland Community Resources’ programs bring young adults with developmental differences together with other members of the community for activities like bowling and movie and game nights. On Sept. 29, the group will sponsor a prom at Patuxent Presbyterian Church in California, Maryland.

Also later this month, students from St. Mary’s Ryken High School in Leonardtown will resume their award-winning “Art to Heart” after-school program, joining friends from SMCR for art, music, dance and theater classes.

The spirit of fun at the Dragon Boat Festival was exemplified by the “On a Wing and a Prayer” team of teachers and parents from Our Lady Star of the Sea School, who wore feathered wings that students don at the school’s Christmas pageant. They also wore halos made of tinsel, and custom-made matching T-shirts.

“We’re an island of learning and a sea of faith,” said Mary Bartsch, the school’s principal. “…It (this event) helps bring more support to our special needs community in Solomons, and it brings awareness to this community.”

Patti Edwards, a seventh grade teacher there, added, “It’s evangelization. Cardinal Wuerl calls us to go out to the world and further the New Evangelization. This is a fun way to evangelize and just let people know we’re called to socially bring the word of God to others.”

Many team members wore matching T-shirts, and the announcer noted that some were dedicating their efforts to special causes, including promoting awareness of breast cancer and the growing heroin epidemic.

Joanne Pensenstadler, the director of faith formation and youth ministry at the Our Lady Star of the Sea Parish, said she hoped the participants in the youth group’s Water Warriors team would see that “in serving Christ, they can have fun… It’s not just church in the building, but the Church all around.”

Her son Anthony, a ninth grader at Ryken, added, “We’re here to help them.”

The dragon boat racing team from St. John’s School in Hollywood was nicknamed the “Detention Dragons,” and visitors to their booth could bounce a ping pong ball into red plastic cups labeled with messages like, “Miss recess,” “detention” and “pop quiz.”

Misty Rice, a St. John’s resource teacher, noted that she works with students with learning differences, which she said made the charity event all the more meaningful for her. “Those kids want to do the same things we do,” she said of the SMCR participants.

That point was echoed by Carie Ptack, a kindergarten teacher at St. John’s, who said, “Being in Catholic school, we see more and more kids with disabilities. It’s important for us to show support for children with all learning styles.”

St. John’s principal, Susan McDonough, added, “I think it’s so important to model service to our school community and to our community at large. That’s who we are. We’re called to serve. Just like disciples of Christ, we’re doing this for others.”

Those watching the races included Stephen Riley, the executive director of Potomac Community Resources, who said, “This festival really highlights the notion of full inclusion,” he said, noting support from local church, business and civic groups. “…They’ve all come together for this great day.”

Programs that bring together young adults with developmental differences with friends in the community can be tailored to meet the needs of people in that region, and there is a hunger for such outreach. “It works!” he said.

Watching the community come together to support their neighbors and friends with special needs was an inspiring sight, Elward said. “It was very humbling to see and feel so much love and support,” she added.