Amanda Hempe of Winfield, a young woman with cognitive delays, looks forward to Saturday nights when she attends Connection of Friends.
At the new Wheaton-based program, she noshes on pizza, plays games, performs karaoke, and just laughs at the funny things that happen.
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This is the time of year when it never hurts to sit back for just a moment amid all the hustle and bustle and reflect on the people who make our lives just a little bit better, who always seem to be there for us, who put the heart and soul in our communities.
There are countless such people across DuPage County, of course, and over the next week or so we'd like to introduce you to a few of them. During a time of reflection, these truly are People to be Thankful For.
"I like hanging out with my friends and I like the (people) who work there," she said. "It's just fun."
Her mom, Sue Hempe, couldn't be happier to see her 19-year-old daughter experiencing some of the joys of being a teenager, and says it has built Amanda's confidence.
"(She's) realizing she can have friends outside home and school," she said.
Helping teens and adults with special needs and developmental disabilities build relationships along with social and life skills is what Connection of Friends is all about.
The program was started by Terry and Ginny Kline of Wheaton after they had a conversation with their daughter in the summer of 2011 about what will happen when their two autistic grandchildren (now ages 13 and 9) turn 22 and age out of the educational system.
Researching the options, the Klines found they were limited. Then they read about a program in Wilmette called Our Place of New Trier Township that served just such a population. After visiting Our Place, they knew they had found their model.
"There is such a need," Kline said. "The outpouring from just general interest has been overwhelming."
Connection of Friends opened this fall in rented space at Hope Presbyterian Church, 1771 S. Weisbrook Road, Wheaton, with two full-time staff members, a couple part-time staffers, volunteers to lead special activities, and a host of interested families.
Participants can sign up for noon to 6 p.m., noon to 3 p.m. or 3 to 6 p.m. sessions during the week and/or attend Saturday night socials from 6 to 9 p.m. Weekday participants choose the days they want and keep the same schedule for 12 weeks. Saturday participants come any week they want, said Jess Trayser, program director.
Activities include music therapy, art, yoga, exercise, gardening, volunteering in the community, and making their own lunches and snacks. Trayser said one goal is to purchase a van so more community outings are possible.
This fall, 22 young people ages 16-33 have participated, and five or six more families have expressed an interest in the winter session, Trayser said. To the relief of some of the participants, no one ages out of Connection of Friends.
"There is no age cap," Trayser said.
Younger participants ages 16 to 22 are still in high school or a transitional program. Older participants may have part-time jobs, but without reinforcement they may lose the life skills they gained in school.
"We are here to have fun, but we are also here to build, to grow," Trayser said.
Families undergo a thorough interview process before a participant is accepted in the program. Participants help decide the activities and are given jobs to do during the weekday program. Goals are set for each participant.
Hempe said one of the goals for her daughter is not to break into conversations with off-topic remarks.
"They hit it on the head," she said. "I couldn't believe how well the goals represented Amanda."
Participating families pay $8 an hour for the weekday program and $25 per Saturday social. Kline said Connection plans to hold three fundraisers a year and seek the rest of its money from donations, grants and foundations.
Theresa Nihill of Wheaton said her daughter, Caitie, 19, has been attending the Saturday socials and may participate in the weekday program when she finishes school.
"We really appreciate they made this affordable," Nihill said. "She loves going there."
For information about Connection of Friends, contact Jess Trayser at (630) 260-0922 or firstname.lastname@example.org.