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Local nonprofit celebrates a year of making special friends

Tim Hayes, 16, and Jessica Wheeler, 17, dance Tuesday, Oct. 1, during their activity time at Connection Of Friends.
Tim Hayes, 16, and Jessica Wheeler, 17, dance Tuesday, Oct. 1, during their activity time at Connection Of Friends.

WHEATON – For more than a year, local nonprofit Connection of Friends has been giving those with special needs the chance to meet new people.

The nonprofit was started last October by Sarah Donnelly, a Wheaton mother of two children with autism. The inspiration came after a long conversation in the summer of 2011 with her parents, Ginny and Terry Kline.

“We were in Sarah’s kitchen, and it was sort of a down day for Sarah. She had obviously been thinking about the future,” Ginny said.

Donnelly said she was worried about her children and what opportunities they might have – especially after they aged out of federally-mandated school programs at age 22.

“She was concerned about [her oldest daughter] Emma, what she might be able to do and feel important doing and feel comfortable doing,” Ginny said. “And we had no answers whatsoever.”

Later that week, the family heard about an organization in Wilmette called Our Place of New Trier. It offered programs for people of all ages with special needs and emphasized building friendships and social skills.

“As grandparents of special needs kids, we knew that down the road they would be facing this issue,” Terry said. “There are some options that are available to special needs teenagers and adults, but we felt there might be something a little different.”

By the end of the year, the family had filed paperwork to start their own nonprofit to provide services similar to the Wilmette group’s in and around Wheaton.

Now, a year after opening, Connection of Friends has two full-time staff members with backgrounds in special needs, five part time staff, 13 regular volunteers and 30 program participants.

The nonprofit offers three hour blocks of programming from 12 to 3 p.m. on weekdays. These include an array of different activities for people ages 16 to 55 with special needs.

“Everything is embedded in socialization. For three hours, special needs adults can come here and learn how to make friends and keep friends,” Donnelly said. “It’s programming that is meaningful and engaging.”

Diane Wheeler said that her daughter Jessica, 17, has attended Connection of Friends since its founding.

Though Jessica is involved in activities at Wheaton North High School and the Western DuPage Special Recreation Association, giving her the opportunity to simply have friends and be a “typical teen” has meant a lot for her and for the family, Wheeler said.

“As a parent with a child with special needs, we become their caregiver or become their social life if we want them to be actively engaged in something,” she said.

Wheeler said that because of the parent and grandparents behind the scenes at Connection of Friends, the nonprofit sees things “from a different perspective.”

Nita Newing’s daughter Cheryl is one of the group’s older participants at 46 and has been involved in the program for a month. Newing said that while Cheryl leads a busy social life, having a small and personal community to interact with on a consistent basis has offered a “wonderful atmosphere.”

“The world is harsh and hard enough without adding to it,” she said. “So I’m just tickled that she’s in a situation that’s safe and caring and compassionate and loving.”

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