Danny Clarke, a member of the Abilis community, has three favorite days of the week—Sundays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. On Sundays, Danny heads to Greenwich Country Day School to do arts and crafts and shoot hoops with Upper School volunteers. On Tuesdays, he plays sports with the GCDS’ athletic teams—a different team every week. And on Wednesdays, he hangs out with his GCDS friends online at a Zoom party where he loves to sing and talk about his favorite bands.
Abilis is a non-profit organization based in Greenwich that supports and advocates for people with developmental disabilities and their families in lower Fairfield County.
I just love these days,” said Danny during an interview on Zoom from his home. “I’ve made so many friends and we get to socialize with each other. They make me so happy, and I love that they always take the time to support my organization.”
The idea of a partnership between Country Day and Abilis began with the opening of the Upper School three years ago.
“I’d always heard about the Unified Sports Program and every-one raves about it. I knew I wanted to create something like that at our high school,” said the Center for Public Good (CPG) Director Jen Donnalley.
When Ms. Donnalley started reaching out to local organizations, Abilis was the obvious choice because it is based in Greenwich and Abilis was the original organization that brought Unified Sports to the Greenwich Public Schools. Abilis members are over 21 since special education services stop at that age in the State of Connecticut.
When the pandemic impacted the community in the Spring of 2020, Abilis quickly pivoted to a virtual format to be able to provide education and activities. Abilis developed new virtual activities to stay connected with families and Abilis community members. To support new activities at Abilis, Ms. Donnalley and Austin Lehn, CPG Assistant Director, along with Lisa Bria, Abilis Director of Programming, brainstormed ideas for online program-ming with the two communities. It was then that the “GCDS-Abilis Zoom Party” was born.
“There was just so much social isolation during those early days of COVID,” said Bibi Clarke, Danny’s mother. “This Zoom party was a godsend during that time.”
Georgia Mann, a GCDS senior and Abilis volunteer, felt similarly and welcomed the opportunity to sing during the Zoom party. “I think we were all kind of lost at that point in time, and I was looking for some sort of connection and something to do with my time that felt important,” said Georgia.
More than two years later the Zoom party is still going strong with GCDS volunteers and Abilis clients playing online games, singing, talking, and laughing.
Ms. Bria is deeply grateful for the partnership and the relationships that are being formed. “Our participants are making friend-ships and they’re getting to feel that camaraderie that everyone needs.”
Ms. Bria believes that GCDS volunteers, too, are benefiting from the experience.
“When you start working with individuals with disabilities, at first, it may be a little intimidating,” says Ms. Bria. “Someone may appear different. But over time, you only see the different skills, abilities and wonderful personalities that each person has to offer. You see each person for who they are, and typical relationships are developed.”
Georgia agrees completely. “I’ve learned how to interact with this community. There’s a stigma sometimes, especially with teens and people who haven’t been exposed to people who are different from them. I’m learning to treat them the way I try to treat everyone else, with kindness and care. Honestly, the Zoom party is one of my favorite activities of the week.”
“We are so thankful to our “Friends of Abilis” at Greenwich Country Day School,” said Amy Montimurro, president and CEO of Abilis. "The benefit is for the Greenwich youth to under-stand the importance of giving back to the community we live in, recognizing the value of each person and improving the quality of lives for people of all abilities in their community. This is an opportunity for the next generation to embrace all differences, challenges, and abilities.”
The Abilis programming has expanded this year as COVID restrictions have been lifted and in-person programming resumed this fall. On a Tuesday afternoon this spring, more than 50 Abilis participants and members of the Varsity Cross Country team hung out in the Gym shooting hoops and playing games. CPG has paired up with the Athletics Dept. on this effort.
“Our goal is to make service an integral part of the Athletics Program,” says Tim Helstein, GCDS Director of Athletics. “Every Upper School athlete will have the opportunity to volunteer with Abilis several times during the course of their years here.”
The two Sunday afternoon Abilis programs are entirely student-led. When John Breitfelder, a senior and member of the important way to communicate,” said Lola. “The Abilis community members are so appreciative when you draw and spend time with them. Honestly, it’s as much about the community we’ve built as it is about the art itself.”
It wasn’t until this spring when her dance troupe volunteered with Abilis that Anna Basinet, a sophomore, got involved with the GCDS/Abilis program. She now volunteers regularly at Arts & Crafts, Hoops with Friends, and the Zoom party along with Georgia, Lola, and John.
Anna is working with CPG advisors to plan an Upper School Intersession—a three-week intensive course in January—about Abilis and developmental disabilities.
“We’re looking for a group of students who want to go in-depth and study developmental disabilities—the neuroscience and behavioral science,” said Anna.
Furthermore, the program would train peer-leaders in the Upper School who can work with Abilis volunteers through workshops and pre-volunteer training.
Austin Lehn, the CPG Assistant Director, agrees that there are expected challenges when working with young adults with developmental disabilities.
“As the program grows, we want to get better in how to best support our volunteers and our Abilis friends,” said Mr. Lehn. “It’s important that volunteers have appropriate language and under-stand how to feel comfortable and confident working with people of all abilities.”
For Anna, working with Abilis has reoriented her way of thinking about society. “Being a part of these programs has made me think about what defines normal. There really is no normal, other than that everyone has the same desire to connect, have friendships, and be loved. As a society we should be working to under-stand the needs of people with disabilities and help them adapt to different environments.”
Mr. Lehn loves to see how the students evolve after a few sessions volunteering with Abilis. “We see them shed their self- consciousness. They engage with the best part of themselves. It’s a very joyful experience.”