Friday, May 25, 2012

What did you learn at Target today? Afterschool program combines community engagement and education for kids with special needs.

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Friends at Community Companions!
Brrrrrring! The end-of-day school bell is music to the ears of kids of all ages, signaling the start of their afterschool activities – sports and piano lessons, friends and computer games, and maybe a little homework. The same goes for kids with autism and other special needs living in Montgomery County. For them, the school bell signals the start of one of the best parts of their day: Community Companions afterschool program.

Community Companions fills a gap in services for children with developmental disabilities, who may need extra support to succeed academically. “We try to enhance what the kids are learning in school through therapeutic activities, as well as meet their individual developmental goals,” said Monique Abbott-Davis, Senior Manager of Community Companions. Taking place after school, Community Companions also supports parents and caregivers, allowing them to finish up their workday or get some well-deserved rest. “It’s really a program for the students as well as for the family,” Monique said.
Ben, 9, is a huge fan of the classroom fish tank.

Tawan, an eleventh-grader with autism, described his favorite Community Companions field trips – Montgomery Mall, Wheaton Park, and Target, where he likes to browse the latest DVD releases. These ventures are fun for the kids, and also help them practice important skills. A field trip to the mall encourages kids to use their math skills when they make a purchase, and a gardening activity demonstrates a plant’s life cycle and structure. The field trips also give the kids experience with money management, socialization, and traveling on the Metro.

Fish tank photography courtesy of Ben, 9.
The students also get to enjoy just being a kid. They play games, shoot hoops, listen to music, and hang out with their friends. It’s these kinds of ordinary activities that prove to be an incredible force of good for the program’s participants, who often feel isolated.

“Some children who are autistic are nonverbal, or they may be more withdrawn than their peers,” said Monique. “This can make them more challenging to understand, and oftentimes people are afraid to try. That’s why it’s very important for our students to be around other people like them. It helps them build a community and see themselves as fitting into a group rather than being different all the time.”

Or maybe Ben, another student with autism, put it best: “I like coming here. I’m with my friends Dee, Matt and Joey!” Ben is a not-so-secret Michael Jackson fan, and he also loves science and sports.

The students fall all along the spectrum of autism and other developmental disorders, so their goals are very individualized. Ben is working on his tone and manners, while Tawan, who’s very talkative, is developing his reading skills and time management.

Participants tend a vegetable garden in the backyard!
“The goals may not seem like great, amazing things,” said Debbie Shanholtz, Administrative Manager for Kennedy. “It might be going from Velcro to regular laces when they learn to tie their shoes. Or a nonverbal student will suddenly say something, or sing along to a song on the radio. No matter how big or how small, seeing them reach those milestones is really the most rewarding part of our work.”  

Last month, the Community Companions program attended a fundraiser at the Green Turtle in Olney, MD, to help support the Autism Society of Montgomery County. “It was so great to see our own little community here at Kennedy, supporting the larger autistic community,” said Monique. The kids also coordinated a 50/50 raffle to support their program! You can make a donation online to support our Kennedy Institute’s outreaches to children and adults with autism and other developmental disabilities.

Community Companions is not just an afterschool program! They also run programs on Saturday afternoons, winter and spring school breaks, and throughout the summer. Learn more here.

More Catholic Charities!

See some kids from our Kennedy Institute featured in our new agency video, available on YouTube!
Our Kennedy Institute has a full range of services for adults and children with developmental disabilities. Learn more here.