Connection of Friends—Providing social opportunities for teens and young adults with disabilities
Sarah Donnelly is passionate about helping those with special needs. As a mother of two autistic children, she was concerned about the lack of programming available once they completed school. “There are such wonderful teams behind our children while they are in school and transitional programs, I wondered why that had to stop at twenty-two years old when they age out of them,” Donnelly explains. She also noticed a shortage of after-school programs for special-needs teens. “Their peers have clubs and activities after school, I wondered why our population couldn’t experience the same thing?” One afternoon while she was discussing her concerns with her parents, the idea for Connection of Friends was born. Thanks to their support and encouragement, Donnelly launched the Wheaton-based nonprofit four years ago.
Programming & Activities
Connection of Friends provides a place for people with special needs, ages 16 and older, to engage in social, life-skill, volunteer and fitness activities on a daily basis. “Our primary purpose is for participants to engage meaningfully within the community and create lasting relationships,” Donnelly explains. “The idea is to get them to connect with one another, regardless if they are verbal or nonverbal. We really want them to learn how to navigate friendships and have fun.”
Connection of Friends offers structured after-school programs that include technology, science, gardening, art and music. It also provides fitness activities such as yoga, strength training and cardio. “We take everyday peer appropriate activities and adapt them to our needs,” Donnelly explains. “If we can’t modify a program or activity so that everyone can fully participate, we won’t do it.” There are even opportunities to help other nonprofits. “We try to give back to the community and teach the importance of helping others in need.” Participants volunteer at a local food pantry and nursing home, as well as the People’s Resource Center and the DuPage Convalescent Center.
Every Monday, Connection of Friends hosts an afternoon of dinner and dancing. Participants spend three hours preparing a meal and setting a table, as well as practicing proper manners and appropriate table conversation. Saturday nights are purely social and are all about having fun. “Our Saturday Night Socials are really unique,” Donnelly enthuses. “Every week from six to nine pm we offer a themed evening full of fun activities and dinner.” To maintain the integrity of the program, class sizes are limited and are filled on a first-come, first-served basis.
Successfully Bringing People Together
The fruits of Donnelly’s efforts are living up to the nonprofit’s name. “We have people who have participated for four years and are now getting together outside of our events. When someone calls up your special needs child and invites them to do something—that’s a parent’s dream come true.”
Another sign of the nonprofit’s success is that participants are excited to share their accomplishments with others. “When they bring their friends and family members to our open houses and show them what they are doing, you can see they have a lot of pride in it,” Donnelly shares.
As more teens and adults attend Connection of Friends events, Donnelly plans offer more activities during the day. Her dream is to reach out to all those who are just sitting at home after aging out of other programs. “It breaks my heart that they think there is nothing out there for them.”
More information about Connection of Friends, including how to volunteer or donate, can be found at connectionoffriends.org. In addition to accepting online donations, Connection of Friends sponsors three fundraisers throughout the year, including a trivia night in April.