Most of us have countless opportunities for meaningful work, creative expression, health, wellness, and physical fitness. But, finding outlets for those pursuits can be challenging for families with children and young adults diagnosed with intellectual or developmental disabilities across a spectrum range that includes Autism and Down Syndrome.
For more than 60 years, THE ARC OF MONMOUTH has been on the front lines in making change happen for people diagnosed with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Started in Monmouth County by a group of parents to
address the needs of families with children with disabilities, it now services other New Jersey counties as well. Services include comprehensive mental health services and recreational programs, as well as residential and employment services. The Achievement Zone is a transitional program for kids coming out of high school to learn skills to move on into adult life. The all-around rec program offers trips, dances, cruises, yoga classes, bowling leagues, golf outings and more—at a cost of only $25 to join.
When Paul Hooker encountered a girl in a wheelchair, disappointed and frustrated over being sidelined at a Little League game without an opportunity to play,it inspired Paul and his wife Margo to start a Little League program in Middletown for children with disabilities. Nearly three decades later, CHALLENGED YOUTH SPORTS serves more than 150 local children participating in soccer, flag football, basketball, tennis, golf, dancercise and cheerleading.
The Red Bank Catholic high school cheerleaders and their coach, Kelly Supp, have coached the Challenged Youth Sports
cheer team for five years. The “Shamrocks” team attends weekly practices to learn sideline cheers and a halftime routine, and then cheers, in uniform, at most RBC home basketball games. No matter if there’s a misstep; the unbridled joy on the cheerleaders’—and spectators’—faces is “magical,” according to Coach Kelly.
She says the RBC cheerleaders benefit too, learning lessons about acceptance, patience and gratitude that stay with them long after graduation. “When they’re all together there are no differences or disabilities. It’s a bunch of teenage girls laughing, dancing, talking about boys and prom and school. Our teams learn from each other.”
Physical therapists Noreen Giovannone and Jennifer Santaniello say, sadly, many kids with mobility limitations or other challenges, “often end up watching a lot of TV.” The two aimed to provide an alternative when they opened KIDZ WIN, a
wellness program offering small-group and one-on-one fitness classes for children with special needs. Classes, held in Cirius Fitness Center in Middletown, range from “Mommy-and-Me” to “Teen Fitness Fusion,” and work on improving core
strength, endurance, flexibility, muscle control, balance, and posture. Noreen and Jennifer modify exercises to each child’s ability. Their “Get Up & Go” class is geared for kids who may not have a diagnosis, but might lack the coordination or confidence to play organized sports, according to Noreen.
“We get so excited seeing their progress and hearing from parents that their children now have the core strength to sit up at their desks, or the endurance to go on family outings,” she says. “But, even more gratifying is seeing the children’s
confidence and positive self-image soar.”
For nearly 20 years, Atlantic Highlands-based artist Sarah Hilton hosted weekly art classes for her late sister Judith and Judith’s friends, all of whom had Down Syndrome. Today Sarah volunteers as an art teacher for OASIS tlc, a supervised
residence and working farm that provides vocational, social and educational experiences for young adults on the autism spectrum. Her goal is not just to give the students an outlet for artistic expression and socialization, but to help them
turn their art into a business.
“Once people with autism age out of high school, there’s not much for them to do,” Sarah says. “But, as graphic artist Milton Glaser said, ‘Art is work.’ It’s a good way to earn a living.”
Indeed, the students are well on their way to becoming true working artists. They have sold their cheerful, brightly colored paintings and other artwork at several gallery events, at West Elm and Welcome Home retail stores in Red Bank, the Rumson Oceanic Library, Atlantic Highlands Farmer’s Market, and other locations. Plans are in the works to turn their paintings into notecards, tote bags, trivets, backsplash tiles, mugs, cutting boards, and other saleable merchandise. The artists also take on commissioned projects. This past holiday season, a customer ordered 60 custom-painted, three-dimensional, Moravian-star ornaments to give as corporate gifts.
“This is great, quality, fine art that could sell anywhere on its own merit, not simply because of the story behind it,” Sarah says. “We’d love to see this turn into a real business with other retail outlets carrying their work. They deserve a following like other talented artists.”