Special Kids Connect was started in 2007 by parents of children with developmental disabilities in order to help families like them deal with the challenges. Developmental disabilities can include autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, vision impairment, intellectual, physical and emotional issues that manifest at birth or infant-hood and are lifelong. Some kids have more than one.
One of the toughest circumstances – Executive Director Lori Luzader calls it “heartbreaking” – is that kids with special needs don’t get invited to birthday parties or playdates with typically developing kids. They are less likely to participate in extracurricular activities, but are more likely to be bullied. All of this isolates the children, and their parents too.
“People don’t know how to interact with a child who may be nonverbal,” Luzader says, “or may be on the autism spectrum, or doesn’t have [traditional] social skills.”
The goal of Special Kids Connect is to include those kids. One way they do that is by teaching social skills through their REACH Programs, which get kids involved in physical and artistic activities, with help from partner organizations and young local volunteers. In the past they’ve created specially tailored soccer and culinary programs; in 2019 it was basketball, golf, bowling and theater. For the basketball program, with the Boys and Girls Club in Seaside, coaches simplify drills. If a child needs more help, a volunteer young person may dribble the ball while the child runs alongside. A kid in the program may be a teenager in years, but developmentally an 8-year-old, and just wants to throw the ball back and forth.
In REACH, the idea is that everyone is treated the same. That said, the young volunteers (middle school to college age) are there to help, but they are also there to be buddies and role models. That way, all the kids learn to be among each other with understanding and without awkwardness. SKC helps disabled kids in the program “connect” to the larger society, while the typically developing kids are transformed into allies out in the world.
Sports still require a certain amount of coordination and strength – traits that not all the program’s participants have. So the nonprofit wants to incorporate more art programs next year.
“In the arts, you don’t have to have a predetermined set of skills,” Luzader says. “I can bring my own skills and be valued for my contribution. The arts levels the playing field.” And that is what Special Kids Connect is all about.