Voices of Youth: 3 Metro Detroit teens share their inspiring experiences with special needs program

Emma Hanoian never thought of herself as much of an artist. So when she entered a contest earlier this summer for a chance to have one of her drawings featured on T-shirts for this year’s Grosse Pointe Run, she didn’t expect to win.

“It took two weeks past the date that I was supposed to hear from them if I won or lost, so I was really worried that I lost,” Hanoian says. “But then I got a phone call that I won.”

The contest — part of a partnership between the Grosse Pointe Rotary Club and Kids on the Go, a pediatric nonprofit that Emma Hanoianprovides physical, occupational, speech and recreational therapies to children and teens with special needs — was a highlight of Hanoian’s first year participating in the organization’s summer program.

Hanoian, 13, lives in Grosse Pointe Farms with her parents and younger brother and sister. She's struggled with reading and writing comprehension since surviving cancer as a baby. Throughout the school year, Hanoian receives supportive instruction at Brownell Middle School under the guidance of an Individualized Education Program (IEP). 

During the summer months, though, extracurricular programs for students with special needs are sometimes difficult to come by. Because of that, Kids on the Go has been an important resource for Hanoian — especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which left her feeling frustrated as she sheltered in place at home with her siblings.

This summer, Hanoian enrolled in two six-week classes through Kids on the Go, each Emma's artworkmeeting once a week, with a goal of building stronger social and technological skills.

One of those classes, called Movie Makers, focused on teaching students digital movie-making using a program called iMovie. “For school, since we were doing so much stuff online … my parents thought it would be good [for me to take] Movie Makers,” Hanoian says. By the end of the program, she was able to create her own mock movie trailer and understood digital transitions better.

Beyond technology skills, students at Kids on the Go also work to develop better social skills. Through a class called Going Social, Hanoian learned how to spark up conversations and improve communication with her peers.

“We talked about interacting with people and how we should start conversations,” Hanoian says.

In addition to learning how to communicate better, Hanoian says Going Social also taught her the importance of being herself — something she thinks is important. “You don’t have to be like this exact [type of] person,” she says. “You can be anybody. People have to like you for you.”

Filling A Need in the Community

Since launching in 1998, Kids on the Go has helped children with special needs in Grosse Pointe and the surrounding area through free programming and an annual summer camp (the nonprofit also operates a summer camp in Traverse City). To date, the organization has provided over 3,000 scholarships and helped close to 1,000 families through the generosity of donors and community members.

A major part of the organization’s mission is to address the individual IEP goals of each student and, in particular, ensure students don’t fall behind during the summer months when many lack access to additional programs.

“A typical developing child can take until the end of September to catch up [after summer break],” says Kristin Piana Schena, founder and executive director. “If you’re a child with special needs, it can take until the end of December.”

Although this summer looked a little different from previous years due to added social distancing precautions related to COVID-19, Schena and the team at Kids on the Go didn’t let it stop them from providing the summer classes and therapies students count on them for.

“This summer alone, we provided 51 sessions and had over 40 programs. Nine were face-to-face, and the rest were virtual,” Schena says, adding that the summer program provided therapy for the children of 150 families. 

Making Friends and Staying Active

Jack Potter, an 18-year-old senior at Grosse Pointe South High School, is another student that has benefitted from the summer programs offered by Kids on the Go. He got involved with the organization six years ago, and says it’s helped him develop skills he’s sometimes struggled with.

Because Potter has autism, his goals include improving verbal communication and pronunciation, learning to initiate conversations with others, and staying healthy. Because of that, Potter signed up for classes this summer including football,Jack Potter golfing, SOMIFit (a 12-week Special Olympics challenge focused on health and wellness) and Going Social.

This year, Potter says SOMIFit was his favorite. Because he had concerns about staying healthy during the pandemic, the class offered Potter new opportunities to stay active rather than spending his time indoors. “Every week, we’d do different group activities,” he says.

Potter says his second favorite class this year was Going Social, which gave him a chance to develop his communication skills and spend time with his peers. “We hung out with our friends and talked about speech and improving our interactions,” he says.

Because of the pandemic, Potter had to deal with the disappointment of a canceled summer trip to Greece and Italy with his mother, Amy, as well as the cancellation of the Light It Up Blue event he had planned at school for Autism Awareness Month in early April. The initiative, observed each year on World Autism Day (April 2), is focused on increasing awareness about autism by illuminating iconic landmarks with blue lights. Regardless, he was still able to make a little time for social activities.

Drawing on the skills he picked up while planning a New Year’s Eve party for Kids on the Go last year, Potter made it a point to organize group chats with his friends from the program this summer, and even planned some socially-distanced group outings to the park and for ice cream once the state’s shelter-in-place orders were lifted.

This month, as Potter begins the new school year online, he says he feels “disappointed” about the impact of the pandemic. “I’m not going to get to do any of the events seniors had in past years, like Homecoming and prom and football games. Football’s been moved to the spring, though,” he says, adding that it isn’t quite the same.

Still, Potter says he’s considering using the event planning skills he’s gained over the last couple years to organize events so that he and his friends won’t miss out on important senior year milestones.

Improving Skills

Like Potter, Declan Johnston is also a Kids on the Go regular. This summer marked the 15-year-old Frasier High School student’s 12th year in the program. 

Diagnosed with a mild form of autism at age two-and-a-half, Johnston has taken a variety of classes at Kids on the Go over Declan Johnstonthe years to meet goals ranging from developing better social skills to exploring creativity.

So far, his favorite class has been Movie Makers, which he took two years in a row. “We had a professional film producer and he was tutoring us on how to properly make films with our personal devices,” Johnston says.

This year, Johnston spent six weeks in Going Social. Because of his extensive experience with the summer camp, he was able to use the skills he’s gained to help out other kids in the program. “It was fun, but I really felt like I was more a helper than a camper,” Johnston says. “For instance, if I saw other campers struggling, I would help them out.”

Beyond social skills, Johnston is also musically-inclined and plays both piano and French horn. As he enters his freshman year of high school this month, he’s excited to join symphony band, although he’s concerned about whether or not he and his fellow musicians will be able practice due to safety precautions related to COVID-19. “Hopefully we can sit out on the football field six feet apart,” he says. “But I doubt that’s going to happen.”

Still, Johnston remains optimistic about the future, and says he’s interested in finding a way to use his musical skills to help children in Kids on the Go’s music therapy sessions. “I do believe Kids on the Go has a music program,” Johnston says. “Someday, I'd like to help [volunteer].”

Johnston says the skills he’s gained during his years with Kids on the Go have been beneficial, and he believes in the services they offer to children. “I would definitely say that, throughout my years at the camp, my social skills have improved,” Johnston says. “A lot of things about me have improved.”
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