Partners in the business of fun, learning

A summer program by The ARC teams disabled youths with friends who help them try new things and gain independence

September 24, 2006|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

Zhenya Wettig, 17, hiked and fished. Claire McGann, 13, did weekly shopping errands for her family and 8-year-old Kaitlyn Marchman took swimming lessons.

Sounds like typical recreation for most kids, but for these three developmentally disabled children, jaunts to the lake, pool or mall without a parent were firsts.

The ARC Northern Chesapeake made frequent outings possible for about 23 children by pairing them with a partner - usually a staff member or college student.

"This program brings our children together with a special person, who helps them iron out the differences," said Lisa McGann, an ARC parent whose daughter Claire has a progressive seizure disorder. "They work together as a team so that these kids are not looked at as anything but a great blessing. What they can't say or manage does not matter. This gives everyone the opportunity to see what they bring emotionally to the environment."

McGann, a former special education teacher, came up with the concept that has become the Life Partners program. She made such a compelling presentation on its merits earlier this year that 23 families signed up for the summer partners program.

The program cost about $25,000 for training, salaries, mileage and compensation for various activities. Parents are already clamoring to bring it back next summer or possibly make it a yearlong program, said Tim Quinn, director of The ARC's Harford chapter. He also hopes to promote the idea with other ARC organizations in the region.

"It bankrupted us, but we are looking for ways to continue it," Quinn said.

The program gave the children a chance at independence with a partner who helped them build skills, said Gloria Perry, The ARC's director of family and individual support services.

"Our children are eager to make this step, but they just don't always know how," Perry said.

The duos spent about five hours a week together the past few months, usually in activities of the child's choosing.

"We were out in the community making connections," said Kathleen Moore, The ARC's respite care coordinator who also served as a life assistant coach to two children. "The kids were going out without Mom or Dad and making friends."

One 9-year-old would chide his many siblings with "He's mine" every time his partner appeared at the door, Quinn said.

"The program has really been phenomenal, and our families are just raving about it," Quinn said. "The children love the individual attention and they met other kids. It is terribly freeing for our families to recognize that others like their kids."

ARC children cope with multiple disabilities. Some cannot speak and several use wheelchairs or walkers. On the outings, other children frequently asked Moore why her young friend did not walk or talk.

"I welcomed those questions," she said. "Then I explained that he talks in different ways."

McGann found that pairing Claire with 22-year-old Sarah Hale provided her daughter with a true learning experience, not "just a something to do," she said. She would give Claire a short shopping list and with Hale's help, the girl completed it.

"My daughter has a profound value for the community," McGann said. "I want her out in the community so she won't be a stranger to everyone. She is an amazing teacher who loves life. This program helps her enjoy her community."

Kim Marchman's daughter Kaitlyn, who has the genetic disorder Angelman's syndrome and does not speak, also partnered with Hale, a University of Baltimore law student. Kaitlyn learned to make her way around the family's health club and mastered all the pool rules. The pair spent many hours swimming together and, with an assist from Hale, Kaitlyn took swimming lessons with a class of her peers.

"She learned the whole routine at the club, from opening doors and giving her card," Marchman said. "The best part was that she was a member of the class. She really wants interaction with other children. Sarah has helped her."

The program has been particularly helpful to teens, Quinn said.

"One value we cling tightly to is inclusive communities," he said. "Our families tell us that when their children hit adolescence, they are frequently left out of activities. It is hard for them to be with their peers who are driving, dating and heading to college."

In addition to Kaitlyn, Hale also partnered with two teenagers. She took each to Aberdeen IronBirds baseball games, out to dinner, to the pool or just down the block for snowballs.

"At first, it was hard for one 17-year-old to say goodbye to her parents," Hale said. "But soon she was saying goodbye before I got to the door."

Zhenya Wettig arrived in this country barely two years ago, when his parents adopted him from a Russian orphanage. He is well on his way to mastering English and having a friend near his age has helped, said his mother, Brenda Wettig of Havre de Grace.

Dan Quinn, 22, a recent college graduate and son of The ARC's director, took Zhenya on so many outings that the teenager quickly learned to say, "Danny will take me."

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