What started out as a weekly volunteer effort for a group of Penn-Mar Day Program participants, at the Golden Connections Community Center in Red Lion, Pa., has blossomed into something magical.
Every Friday, for the past six months, Penn-Mar Community Activities Instructor Tammy Beavers has been taking a group of individuals to Golden Connections, formerly the Red Lion Area Senior Center. There the group breaks down and cleans the center’s food bar, and in the process have been learning valuable skills.
“The experience has been a great outlet for our folks,” says Tammy, who has a degree in special education, and has dedicated her entire working career to people with special needs. “Our goal is to get our individuals out in the community as often as possible and to give them real-world experiences.”
As the weekly volunteering progressed, Tammy began exploring other opportunities for her groups at Golden Connections through staff at the center, and it wasn’t long before they and other Penn-Mar groups started taking classes with attending seniors in country line dancing, soap and lotion making, and holiday decorating. Although these activities have been effective learning experiences, Tammy says it’s not exactly where the magic is happening.
“The magic that’s happening is the real connection the seniors at the center and Penn-Mar individuals are making. They look forward to seeing each other, and have established wonderful friendships. They hug each other when they walk in the door. It’s a very exciting, magical thing that’s happening at the center.”
Community inclusion through connected and authentic learning is the foundation of Penn-Mar’s Day Program. The meaningful experiences and connections Penn-Mar individuals are having and making out in the community are opening up opportunities they would not otherwise have if they remained sheltered within a day program facility. For one individual, Vijay, the Golden Connections experience, has given him a voice he physically does not have.
Vijay is nonverbal and uses a wheelchair, yet his disabilities have not gotten in the way of something he discovered he loves to do – greet people. Through his “Talker” an adaptive communication device that has been programmed to say hello and assist people entering the center with directions, Vijay is connecting with people and at the same time acquiring knowledge and skills that could eventually, says Tammy, lead to a job as a greeter at a store or restaurant.
“Vijay let me know that he likes greeting people,” said Tammy. “So we’re trying this out to see how it goes, just as cleaning down the food bar can be seen as pre-training for eventual community jobs. These opportunities are giving them a stab at something that might work for them.”
The staff at Golden Connections Community Center have gone out of their way to work with Tammy and Penn-Mar’s individuals. The seniors, members of the center, have been very generous, welcoming and open, Tammy noted, learning everyone’s name and becoming friends.
“Often our individuals go out into the community and people walk past and ignore us…pretend we’re just not there. These seniors came right up to us with open arms and wanted to be friends. Our guys want to be friends with them too.”
Tammy says that there’s no other word to describe the rich experience they are having at Golden Connections other than it’s magical.
“Our folks all have amazing personalities. They’re wonderful people. So it’s so nice to have people in the community that welcome us instead of turning their backs.”