Down syndrome center helps build social connections


Kendra Alaza, Orange County Register

NEWPORT BEACH – A special-needs teen center hopes to teach skills that kids who visit cannot learn at home or school.

The Down Syndrome Foundation of Orange County opens its doors once a month throughout the school year to kids with Down syndrome. The program, at the foundation’s headquarters at 1451 Quail St., has drawn 15 to 20 kids each month in its first year.

The late-Sunday-afternoon sessions, called Teen Time, are meant to offer children ages 11-15 lessons on subjects such as cooking and gardening in a nurturing environment with a trained staff and volunteers.

Director of Operations Lisa Fraser said the foundation, which works with more than 80 families throughout the county each month, received more than $1,000 in grants last year to help make its multipurpose room more teen-friendly, adding couches, a flat-screen television, DVDs, a Wii console and a library corner of young-adult books to make guests more comfortable.

However, the program’s main focus is teaching social skills that special-needs students cannot practice regularly, foundation officials said

“They may not have had a lot of social opportunities based on family situation or school settings,” Director of Education Nicki Presby said. “We work on communication skills they can take out into the community and into their schools. We work on appropriate behavior at a party. We set up a social setting where they are eating and sharing snacks together, working on table manners and conversation skills. We play board games.”

Presby said that during ages 11-15, children stop playing with toys and learn how to socialize in groups, either at school or in public places such as a shopping mall. She said parents of children with Down syndrome would not necessarily feel safe letting their children go places by themselves and opt for somewhere nurturing where their child can develop socially.

Jeremy, Fraser’s son, has been coming to Teen Time since last year. The 13-year-old Pioneer Middle School student from Tustin said he is excited to be at the center.

“I like hanging out with friends, reading books, having fun, and I love helping my mom do work. I’m very happy.” he said.

Marianne Man, leader of 12 Girl Scouts who make up troop 468 in Irvine, said their time spent volunteering at the center teaches them how to socialize with and accept children who may come across as different at first.

“At that age, they hear in school that they bully people who are different,” Man said. “I hope these girls will not react in a negative way.”

Deborah Lin, of Irvine, said her daughter Michelle, 10, a Girl Scout, has learned so much by volunteering at the center. She took photos of her daughter crushing Oreos in a sandwich bag with the other participants as she learned how to make a “mud and worms” recipe made of Oreo crumbs, chocolate pudding and gummy worms.

“She loves it very much,” Lin said. “She learns a lot from the interaction” with kids she would otherwise not get to meet, Lin explained.

Fraser said the foundation hopes to expand the monthly sessions to an after-school club where teens can receive tutoring and work on their social skills at least once a week. How long it takes to get there depends on the funding it receives to provide proper care for teens, she said.

“It takes more than just grants,” Fraser said. “We need volunteers, people that will donate their time or things to our auctions, and people to come to our events and take part in the live and silent auctions. The funding is one component of many that are needed.”

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