Summit program supports those with special needs in Union County

Photo Courtesy of Amy Cairns
The TryCAN organization participates in a bowling activity.

SUMMIT, NJ — When residents in a community come together, it makes that community a better place in which to live and thrive. Establishing a way to be more inclusive for everyone, Union and Cranford, along with other communities, are partnered with TryCAN.

Supported by the Summit Community Program, the TryCAN organization has been serving several local communities for some time.

“Since 2007, the TryCAN Collaboration has provided quality recreation and social skills programs for young people with unique developmental needs throughout the region,” senior program coordinator and TryCAN Director David Guida Jr. said on Oct. 20. “We have served hundreds of children and trained hundreds of teens as peer mentors and program volunteers. Teen peer mentors become better world citizens and advocates for individuals with special needs through training and volunteering as aides in TryCAN programs.

“In addition, our trained volunteers help program partners in complying with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements,” he continued. “They assist individuals with special needs when they request to attend a regular recreation program, providing true inclusion. Matching a volunteer with a participant is as simple as sending an email to our established group of trained volunteers.”

TryCAN is funded through the state of New Jersey’s ROID Grant Program, collaborator dues, program fees and donations. According to Guida, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization also receives financial support from its parent organization.

Serving individuals with special needs and their families, the organization helps children in the Cranford and Union Township communities.

“The creation of trained pools of both mentors and community coaches allows children with special needs to participate in existing regular recreation programs — with appropriate adaptations where needed,” Guida said. “TryCAN solicits and receives help from sports coaches across the entire range of Summit-based youth sports organizations. These coaches help TryCAN run programs in advance of the regular sports seasons, providing a valuable, pre-teaching opportunity for special-needs youth. These preseason sports programs enable special-needs children to learn skills in a nurturing and noncompetitive environment. In some cases, kids with special needs acquire proficiency in preseason programs and are able, with a supportive coach, to join their classmates in regular season play.”

Children with special needs in Cranford and Union have benefited mightily from this consideration.

“Even young people who are unable to progress into a regular sports league or class benefit from TryCAN programs,” Guida said. “They gain confidence from learning a new activity or by developing a new interest. Participation in sports, social skills and other activities alongside peer mentors provides special-needs youth with role models for behavior, increased social skills and social ties within the community. Students are also exposed to activities such as cooking, board games and computers that connect them to the tools their peers regularly use.

“Often peer mentors become ambassadors for our youth in the classroom and in other settings, and examples for sensitivity and inclusion for others. Both mentors and our youth with special needs benefit as a result,” he continued.

Peer mentorship is heavily implemented within the TryCAN organization.

“In these programs, TryCAN uses a peer-mentee model, where tweens, teens and young adults receive special-needs sensitivity training and are paired with special-needs peers to engage in athletic, educational, social and life skills classes,” Guida said. “Professional educators and coaches, experienced in working with special-needs populations, oversee and teach the classes. Volunteer teen peer mentors act as friends, assistant coaches and helpers to their special-needs counterparts. The goal is to provide skills and experiences to help children with needs become more self-sufficient and active in the community. The children with needs often bond and take instruction from peers in a way they may not with instructors or other adults.

“To make the pairing of teen peer mentors with children with special needs successful, it is extremely important that teens are trained before being paired with children who need assistance,” he continued. “Sporting events, social and developmental programs, as well as community outings, can be extremely unpleasant for those with heightened sensitivities, poor social skills and behavior issues. TryCAN provides a two-hour boot-camp training class, taught by an experienced behaviorist and autism educator, for teens interested in becoming a peer mentor for children with special needs. Teens learn about how various developmental disabilities, such as autism, ADHD, visual and hearing impairments, impact the way children play and learn. Beyond learning how and why these children see their world differently, they learn how to work and interact with them, using techniques to help them enjoy sports and recreation experiences. After completing training, teens can volunteer as peer mentors in any of our special-needs programs.”

TryCAN has made a large impact through training.

“TryCAN has trained over 500 teens from local schools, with the majority residing in Summit, New Providence and Chatham, but also hailing from a number of nearby towns,” Guida said. “Many trainees continue, after training, as regular mentors to children with special needs in our programs. To date, these mentors have volunteered almost 5,000 hours of community service working with special-needs children in our local community. Trainees who go on to mentor now aspire to careers in teaching children with special needs and counseling.”

The organization offers various activities for children residing in Union Township, Cranford and other area communities.

“The weekly programs we offer are game club, Social Skills – Digital Drama, teen friendship, Let’s Pretend, Let’s Talk Pragmatics, yoga, dance and movement, cooking, multi-sports, football, baseball, tennis, soccer, acting, art, reading, book club, CommuniPlay, and golf,” Guida said. “The events we offer are TryCAN swim, Halloween Costume Contest, Thanksgiving dinner, back-to-school pizza party, egg hunt and Baseball Under the Lights. Other towns we collaborate with are Westfield, South Orange, Plainfield, Mountainside, New Providence, Clark, Springfield, Union, Cranford, Milburn, Maplewood, Berkeley Heights and Madison.”

Collaborating towns, such as Union and Cranford, can host their own events.

“Partnering towns all have the opportunity to host their own programs through the TryCAN Collaboration,” Guida said. “Soccer is currently being held in New Providence. Mentor trainings have occurred in both Union Township and Cranford. We are working on beginning acting classes in Maplewood. Swim events have been held in Cranford.”

According to Guida, TryCAN has worked to help create local special-needs programming and opportunities for individuals with special needs. Prior to 2007, children with special needs in Summit had limited opportunity to participate in activities in the community, particularly recreation. Since the accomplishment and success of TryCAN, other towns have joined the collaboration to make these programs available to their residents.

Now an award-winning program that enhances the lives of special-needs children, teen peer mentors and coaches who participate in it, TryCAN continues to push forward.

“Recently we initiated an effort for inclusion of all TryCAN participants in mainstream programs,” Guida said. “We provide one-on-one mentors for all recreational programs when requested. Additionally, this summer the Department of Community Programs camp featured a TryCAN section to include children with disabilities in the general model. It is my hope to increase inclusion even further.”