In an effort to gain a deeper understanding of NYCA’s work, our NEXT Gen board of directors recently spent time with children and teen mentors at the Jewish Community Center Manhattan’s BOOST! After School Program, one of NYCA’s first and banner initiatives. Ilene Lainer, NYCA’s President, and Allison Kleinman, Director of the Jack and Shirley Silver Center for Special Needs at the JCC Manhattan, kicked off the evening with a brief introduction. Both women underscored the exponential value of creating community programs where children and teens on the autism spectrum can learn social and communication skills in a group setting while interacting with typically developing peers.
After introductions, the NEXT Gen members danced to “Who Let the Dogs Out?” before a few spirited rounds of “Doggy Doggy Where’s My Bone?” a circle game in which searching for a hidden dog bone encourages social interaction and the use of verbal and non-verbal queues. “The kids were engaged in an activity that simply seemed fun to them, but in reality, it placed them in a social context that taught them how to deal with the day-to-day challenges that everyone faces.” recalled NEXT Gen board member Andrew Klestadt.
When NYCA approached the JCC with the idea to create BOOST! in 2008, after school enrichment programs for children with ASD were uncommon. Rarer still were opportunities for those children to learn to socialize and interact with typical peers. BOOST! filled a gap in services, and was an opportunity for NYCA to expand the capacity of the JCC to serve people on the autism spectrum. In a recent survey, 91% of participants reported that their child felt comfortable participating in activities with other children after BOOST! versus only 41% before participating in BOOST!
In addition to funding the launch of BOOST!, NYCA recruited key staff, provided strategic consultations, as well as funding for ongoing staff training by Have Dreams, the program in Chicago on which BOOST! is based. NYCA hosted professional development meetings with experts and site visits between the staff and their peers in Chicago, thereby further growing autism expertise in the community. Since BOOST!, the JCC Manhattan has significantly expanded its services for people with ASD and their families.
“It’s remarkable that NYCA identified Have Dreams and was able to bring it to the JCC Manhattan for people with ASD here to benefit from,” observed Alix Henick, a NEXT Gen visitor. Her colleague, Jenna Grippo, added: “I liked the underlying philosophy – the importance of having a program for children on the autism spectrum in a community center with people of all ages, not secluded in a
different building by itself.” Such commitment to inclusion is a core value of NYCA; it permeates all of our work.
Our NEXT Gen board members also noted the remarkable dedication of the volunteers., many of whom go on to express interest in working with people with ASD in the future. “I was struck by the size of class and the ratio of volunteers and teachers to children,” said Tania Ryalls, NEXT Gen board co-president. “It was lovely to see the way the teen volunteers had bonded with the kids, and developed unique ways of communicating with each of them depending on their needs.”
As the afternoon ended and parents and caregivers arrived, it was clear that everyone had enjoyed the visit, so much so that some of the children did not want to leave. “That,” noted board member Jenna Grippo, “is always a good sign of a successful program.”