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Two couples with children on the autism spectrum dreamed of a program to serve kids with disabilities like those of typically developing families. To that end, Mark and Vinnie Smith of Bettendorf, along with Dave and Joanie Steil, began an inclusive summer camp about 18 years ago.

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Mark Smith will be the grand marshal of the Bettendorf July 4 parade. He is president/CEO of Hand in Hand in Bettendorf.

What began as a weekend camp evolved into year-round programming and the creation of Hand-in-Hand, a nonprofit serving the Quad-Cities since 2000, and providing fun, inclusive experiences for children, young adults and families.

Mark Smith is being honored for his service as the grand marshal of Bettendorf’s annual 4th of July parade, which steps off at 10 a.m. along State Street, Bettendorf.

The city accepts nominees annually who have made a contribution to the quality of life in the city.

“It’s a nice way to be recognized and I’m grateful for the honor. It’s truly humbling,” said Smith, 61.

He was nominated by John Byrne, president of Hand-In-Hand’s board of directors.

“Hand-in-Hand has expanded and flourished over the years, and is a shining star in our community," Byrne said. "It represents so many of the good things we need in our communities today — compassion, generosity, joy, and opportunities for everyone. Mark has selflessly dedicated the past 18 years of his life to leading this organization."

Smith, and his wife, Vinnie, say their son, Peter, who was 2½ when the program began, inspired them to start Hand-In-Hand, housed in a building at 3860 Middle Road known as “Tessa’s Place”, in memory of the Steil's daughter, Tessa, who died in 1999. 

The programming was designed to keep Tessa’s spirit alive, Mark Smith said. It includes integrated child care and preschool, a fitness/cooking/nutrition program, an art class, a volunteer program for young adults with special needs or disabilities, after-school care, teen night, an adaptive summer camp, a weekend sleepover and more. The programs adapt so participants of all abilities can learn, make friends and become more independent.

“Families need a break, to have time for siblings," Smith said. "Part of our programming involves caring for participants so parents can take a break and have time for siblings. Spouses need each other too."

Hand-in-Hand employs about 60 people.

“We are blessed to be growing, but it also presents challenges. We are always trying to do our part to make sure all families have a place in our community and our country. Bettendorf does a great job at that,” Smith said.

The Smith’s son, Peter, now 29, works at Fidlar Technologies in Davenport, and is active in art.

Their other son, Patrick, attends Des Moines University, where he is pursuing a career as a physician’s assistant.

Smith enjoys spending time with his family, exercise, archaeology and local history.

To learn more about Hand-in-Hand, visit handinhandqc.org.

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