Community Connections provides unique opportunity

by Sonja J. Keith

Young people with special needs have a unique opportunity to participate in sporting events and other extra-curricular activities through a program called Community Connections.

According to executive director Courtney Leach, Todd and Amy Denton and David and Krista Tapp, co-owners of Pediatrics Plus, identified a need in 2005 for children and their parents. “They saw a common theme with all of the kids coming in and out of their therapy clinic,” Leach said. “These kids with special needs didn’t have the opportunity to participate in sports, the arts and activities like their brothers and sisters. On the flip side, they saw that parents really, really needed support.” She added it can be isolating for parents with a special needs child because they don’t know what to expect or what the future will hold.

“They kind of dreamed up Community Connections,” a separate entity from Pediatrics Plus.

Community Connections started with offering opportunities for drama and then added soccer. With a growing need to help families with children with an autism diagnosis, a third program was added – the Autism Resource Center.

This year, Community Connections will offer 11 programs: TOP Soccer, art, RUFL Football, ACTS Jr. Theater, First Tee Golf, Showstoppers Cheerleading, the Autism Resource Center, music, martial arts, basketball and a pilot tennis program. Free of charge, the programs are available in Conway, Little Rock and Russellville.

The Autism Resource Center of Arkansas includes a free resource library, a resource guide, workshops, a summer day camp, sibling support and family respite and a young adult group (open to any diagnosis). (For more information, call 501.803.6944 or email [email protected].)

“It’s been pretty grassroots in the way that it has grown,” Leach said, adding that each has been created when there’s been a passionate individual interested in making an activity available.

Leach, a mother of four children ages 11, 9, 5 and 3, knows firsthand the importance of programs like those offered through Community Connections. She has a son diagnosed with a chromosome deletion that affects muscle development and cognition.

“He started receiving therapy at Peds Plus,” she said. “Before we had him, I didn’t know any families with kids with disabilities. It wasn’t anything I had any familiarity with. I never really thought I wanted to work for a nonprofit organization. I got my master’s at UCA in higher ed administration…When we were following our journey and trying to help him, I found out about Community Connections and just fell in love with the vision because I was a parent who needed support.”

Leach, who joined the agency in 2008, said all of the programs started in Conway and later expanded to other cities after she received calls from individuals across the state who discovered Community Connections on the internet. She discovered families would drive more than an hour, one way, each week for their child to participate in a 45- to 60-minute program. “It broke my heart and kind of kept me up at night,” she said. “That was kind of the heart behind why we thought we would duplicate (and expand). It wasn’t a strategic plan. It was more by happenstance and out of need.”

Community Connections annually serves about 500 kids and their families, which represent 19 counties. There are no fees associated with the programs, offered afterschool and on weekends. “It’s been really important to our board that we make the programs free. They want to be a blessing, not a burden, to the families that benefit.”

Cheerleading is one of the programs offered through Community Connections.

While Community Connections is affiliated with Pediatrics Plus, the programs are available to all kids. “We don’t require an official diagnosis. We are pretty welcoming. We believe all kids deserve an opportunity to participate in sports and the arts.”

The programs are offered at locations out in the community, which reflects the organization’s name. “We rely on community volunteers,” she said, adding that a lot of high school and college athletic teams, student organizations, civic groups, businesses and churches support Community Connections. “It’s a lot of orchestrating, but we have the best community we live in.”

Leach said the programs are not expensive to operate. Each has a program director, a community volunteer who coordinates other volunteers, comes up with a weekly lesson plan and communicates with the families. “They have a heart to make these programs possible for these kids.” Community Connections provides uniforms and equipment.

Community Connections, a Faulkner County United Way agency, has two big fundraisers each year: the Greek Food Festival in Little Rock in the spring and Good Night (formerly Royal Night Out), planned Friday, Nov. 4, at Pleasant Valley Country Club in Little Rock. There’s also a Friends of Community Connections group that provides financial support for programs.

Leach said there are many benefits that participants and their families receive. She said some children served by Community Connections have siblings that participate in sports leagues in the community that they cannot also be a part of because of mental or physical issues. “I feel like for a lot of kids that participate in our programs, it’s a huge part of their world. It boosts their self-confidence,” she said. “I think it gives them a huge sense of pride and belonging. I think it’s great for social skill development. It’s an opportunity to make friends and be a part of a team that they really don’t have outside of Community Connections.”

Siblings are also allowed to participate in programs with those who have special needs, which is a unique opportunity for shared experiences. Leach has also seen where parents who thought they couldn’t share a common interest have connected with their special needs child because of the experience made possible through Community Connections.

Leach said what drew her to Community Connections was the support provided to parents. “It’s challenging raising kids. Period. Throw out a developmental disability and it can really be discouraging. You see your kiddo who can’t do the things that you think he should be able to do.” She said a special camaraderie develops as parents sit on the sidelines and watch their child participate. “I love seeing families go from kind of hopeless and overwhelmed and unconnected to make friends and realize they are not alone.”