Making ‘M Smile with Nathaniel’s Hope

Fun in the Sun with Special Needs Kids at America’s Teaching Zoo


Medene Presley

Notre Dame students pose with Nathaniel, a mascot of the four-year-old whose story started it all. While the real Nathaniel relocated to Heaven over two decades ago, his legacy continues to spread through amazing events like these.

On Saturday, August 27th, the Moorpark Zoo was bustling with activity; lions prowled in their enclosures, spider monkeys swung energetically from their tails, and colorful parrots squawked out greetings to smiling zookeepers. The animals seemed to understand that the day was bound to be exciting—and they were right!

It was the first-ever Make ‘M Smile SoCal, and families from all over Ventura and the neighboring counties were on their way to an afternoon full of amusement. The inclusive party was hosted by Nathaniel’s Hope, a non-profit that celebrates kids with special needs nationwide. They equip families and churches with resources, programs, and engaging activities year-round to enrich the lives of disabled children and their loved ones.   

At 10 AM, groups began to arrive, where they were greeted by carnival games, prizes, and spirited volunteers—eleven of which were from Notre Dame! 

I caught Ines Ameriso ‘23 as she was helping out at the chalk walk, where kids were drawing pictures to make the zoo paths vibrant with color. When I asked her what her favorite part was, she told me, “I love hanging out with the little kids. Connecting with them and giving them some attention one-on-one is so important. They don’t get that kind of interaction all the time, so I’m glad I can be here.” 

Along with tons of games and giveaways, many booths promoted local products and businesses—like speech therapy, disability ID badges, and assistive communication technology—all with the goal of sharing useful services with fellow community members. Caring for a child with special needs can be difficult and strenuous sometimes, but the message to parents and guardians was loud and clear: “We’re here to support you!”

Lots of churches were in attendance too, as Nathaniel’s Hope hosts “Buddy Breaks” at parishes across the country, where children with disabilities (and their siblings) can spend a few fun hours with a trained volunteer, while their families can rest.

Luke McKeon ‘23 also volunteered at the event, manning the ball toss with unrivaled enthusiasm. When confronted with a basketball hoop hat and a bucket full of bean bags, he didn’t hesitate to don the headpiece and let little hands take their best shots—even if it meant some of the throws hit him square in the face. 

“There’s no easier way to show a kid they matter than to get down to their level and just have fun with them,” he said. “I love seeing how happy they get when they land a great shot.”

At 4 PM, our mini festival had come to a close, and families said their goodbyes with tote bags stuffed with goodies and hearts stuffed with love. Tents were folded up, trash was collected, and animals settled down for their midday naps, but no one—from the kids, to the volunteers, to the animals—will forget the joy and inclusion they felt that day.