Max Callahan, a 20-year-old Pelham resident with autism, now has a busier social life than before the COVID-19 pandemic. He takes five online courses all of which are free through Hadley-based Whole Children, which offers recreational, social and enrichment programs designed for children and young adults with disabilities.
Callahan said he takes classes in self-representation, Japanese anime, art and video games, and takes part in a multiplayer video game night once a week. He has been involved with Whole Children since 2018.
“The self-advocacy course made me feel better,” Callahan said. “I’m a little shy about self-advocacy, so taking this course helps me improve every day, feel more confident and defend myself. “
Andrea Callahan, Max’s mother, said when they started to socially distance themselves in March, her son’s calendar seemed empty. But once Whole Children announced that it was offering free online classes, its weekly schedule filled with activities.
“For our family it made a difference,” said Andrea Callahan. “He wakes up every morning, takes a shower, eats his breakfast, looks at the calendar and jumps on a fun date. He’s busier now than he was before his forties when it comes to social opportunities. I am so grateful. It changed everything for us.
Max Callahan attends Amherst-Pelham Regional High School. Under Massachusetts statute Chapter 688 (also known as 22 years old law), severely disabled young adults can continue to attend high school until age 22 “when they leave special education and transition to the adult services system,” according to the Massachusetts website Department of Developmental Services.
Callahan said he found Whole Children accepted and it had been “just a good experience for me.”
He added: “I made several good friends. The staff are really helpful if you are facing a difficult situation.
Callahan said he also supports a new friend he made online who needed someone to talk to about the friend’s struggles with social distancing.
“I remember he said, ‘I need someone to talk to because it’s really hard in my 40s,’” Max said.
Participants involved in Whole Children have created a support system for each other during the pandemic, said Andrea Callahan.
“Now when they feel depressed in their forties, or alone or sick with their families, they start to call each other,” she added. “That’s really the beauty of it.”
Julie Hooks is Associate Director of Whole Children and Milestones Recreation, a community day program for adults with disabilities. Both programs are part of the locally based Pathlight Group, which serves people with disabilities of all ages.
There weren’t many barriers to switching to online courses and programs in March at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hooks said.
“I have to say our teachers haven’t really missed a beat to make the change,” Hooks said. “They didn’t need to take the time to understand the idea that we had to continue serving our students and participants. It was simply a matter of mastering the technology. We mainly use Zoom and Discord [video-chat programs] for our online courses.
What impressed Hooks the most was how easily students adapted to online classes.
“For a lot of them, they’re very computer and tech savvy,” she noted. “A lot of them were able to make the adjustment and understand how Zoom works and sometimes need help.”
Hooks said that for attendees used to attending classes in physical locations, building an online community through the free classes has been a challenge, especially with attendees who don’t have easy access to technology. .
“A handful of our students don’t have the devices they need to participate,” she said, adding that a student wanted to participate in a panel discussion on a popular life simulation video game called ” Animal Crossing: New Horizons ”but did not have the Nintendo Switch game console to participate.
“Whole Children is a program of Pathlight, so one of our sister organizations, Family Empowerment, was able to raise funds to purchase a device and game for this child,” Hooks said. “One of our teachers had to go to Chicopee and Springfield and got this game and delivered it to this student’s house so he could participate in the class.”
Jacqueline “Jac” Boucher is 18 years old and suffers from Down syndrome as well as a speech disorder called verbal apraxia. She attends South Hadley High School and lives in an apartment in South Hadley with her babysitter, Abigail Moller, while Boucher’s mother, Linda LaPointe, lives a few miles away in Granby.
LaPointe said her daughter started attending the Milestones Recreation day program in the morning and Whole Children classes in the afternoon last year. Boucher is currently taking distance education online through Whole Children and Milestones Monday through Friday.
“When she started going to Milestones, it was last summer, something clicked for her,” LaPointe said. “She finally felt completely accepted. There were other young adults who were not understood the first time they said something and needed support. It gave her all the confidence she needed.
Boucher said Milestones is a place where she made friends and that there is always “a lot going on”.
The most difficult challenge for Boucher was being quarantined from his mother for two weeks after LaPointe came into contact with someone who was diagnosed with COVID-19.
“We did a lot of FaceTime,” said Moller, his keeper. “And she took care of it. He missed her. She misses people, that’s for sure.
Boucher is involved in storytelling, a “Music Mash” course identifying musical instruments, songwriting, self-performance, art and science classes, as well as a women’s group for youth. adults 18 or older focused on health, relationships and anything else related to being a woman, Moller said. Boucher also participates in an online dating group Milestones.
Andrea Callahan noted that the pandemic has been difficult for young adults with disabilities who are only “launching their independence”. A year ago, her son, Max, might have been eager to take the bus to a prom at school, for example.
“They took the transport themselves to go to the ball on Friday night. And it was lost… But because of the courses, they can leave and be independent, ”she said. “This is really the hardest part for this population of young adults with disabilities. It was the very age when they started dancing without parents.
Chris Goudreau can be reached at [email protected] To learn more about Pathlight Group, Whole Children, and Milestones Recreation, visit https://pathlightgroup.org.