There are plenty of smiles, laughter and activity to go around from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at a facility on the Shiloh Road Church of Christ campus.
It’s the site of Achieving Dreams, a day program for adults with special needs.
With five clients, 10 volunteers and a board of directors, a Tyler mother is hopeful that the program is on the path to success.
Denise Carter opened Achieving Dreams this month to integrate clients into the community and help them develop work-related and social skills.
In 2011, Ms. Carter first opened a program for adults with special needs while living in the Dallas area. Her son, Matthew Carter, who has Down syndrome, was a source of inspiration.
“Some programs I had looked at both here and when I was in Dallas, they just sat around all day and the ratio of teacher to student was high,” Ms. Carter said. “It wasn’t unusual to have one teacher to 10 students because of budgeting issues, which I understand that now. However, we feel like we could do better — we can do something different.”
Called Believe and Achieve, the program became a success. When she moved to Tyler, she wanted to duplicate that.
“I’m just a mom, and like many, many other parents before me — someone once told me — you can stand around and complain or you can get in there and do something about it. I decided to be a part of the solution instead of continuing to gripe all the time about it.”
Educators note that, while school systems work to develop skills in adults with special needs, it won’t matter if they graduate only to find there is no opportunity to apply those skills.
Kathy Stetson, a board member, worked at St. Louis School (now Boshears). She helps create the program’s activities.
“I know what happens to some of our students,” she said. “Sometimes when they leave the school, there really isn’t any place for them that fits their needs.”
Clients there volunteer in the mornings until 11:30 a.m. then return to the church’s facility for lunch and recreation.
A concern for some students with special needs is that they often lead sedentary lives, which may spur weight and other health problems.
As the program expands, Ms. Carter hopes to have a fitness program in the afternoons.
“The whole focus is just to be healthy, especially the Downs kids because they struggle with weight issues usually,” she said.
Board member Bettie Clancy is another retired educator involved with the program. She spent more than 20 years at St. Louis.
“This has really been a dream to have a program after our students graduate that would not be a babysitting service,” she said. “We don’t want babysitters. We want them to be the best they can be and learn as much as they can learn. And use the skills we teach them to be able to work in the community, to socialize in the community, to be accepted in the community.”
Clients in the program visit St. Paul Children’s Foundation to sort and stock pantry shelves. They’re also helping with the Smith County Medical Society Alliance’s upcoming annual book fair and interacting with residents at The Heights, an assisted living facility.
Wayne Boshears, who has had a 41-year career in education, is one of the program’s board members and the namesake for the TISD school. Now the president of East Texas Christian Academy, he spent 36 years at Tyler ISD, including 25 years at St. Louis School as its principal.
He said the attitudes and focus of educating students with special needs has evolved.
“It’s much more open,” Boshears said. “It’s much more understood. They’re much more valued and accepted. They’re very much a part of our community and we need to provide quality opportunities for these young men and young women to be involved in.”
Terminology is also different. They refer to clients as adults with special needs, versus special needs adults.
“It’s the person first,” Ms. Carter said. “The disability is second.”
In addition to serving the community and developing work skills, Ms. Carter said it was important for adults with special needs to embrace relationships. She said her son, although nonverbal, enjoys working and meeting people.
“If you ask any parent what’s missing in their special needs child’s life, it would be relationships with others,” she said. “We really foster that. We have some that text each other, make phone calls and get together on the weekends. That’s a huge part of what we want to see because everybody needs to be loved and appreciated.”
Relationships are also fostered between visiting home school students and St. Louis and Boshears graduates.
Dennis Milstead, a 1990 St. Louis graduate, comes to the program to volunteer. He’s there everyday, along with his attendant, to “just help out and give back.”
VISIONS FOR THE FUTURE
Ms. Carter said day programs often struggle because of limited funding and staffing. The cost to run such a program is much more than what government funds can provide parents, Ms. Carter said. Achieving Dreams will contract with case management companies for parents who have received state funding while others will pay a daily rate.
That’s why they’ve enlisted the help of faithful volunteers and will aggressively fundraise.
Her mission, she said, is to grow a quality program that addresses clients’ needs.
“I don’t have a vision of being the largest or anything like that, but being a place where our clients are just treated with respect,” she said.
The program will eventually be extended to 6 p.m., with the added fitness program.
For those involved in establishing the program, such as Boshears, they’re eager to see the possibilities that lie ahead.
“We’re just starting and I hope as people learn about the opportunities for these young men and women, they will certainly investigate to see if it’s a fit for their sons or daughters,” he said.
To learn more about Achieving Dreams, visit its Facebook page atwww.on.fb.me/1gHuH7A or call 903-526-9005.