Connections Made, The FUN Way
For Linda Jones, founder of Families United in Newtown (FUN), the local autism support nonprofit, social distancing has meant pivoting to a new means of reaching out to the special education members and families in Newtown used to FUN activities throughout the year that bring them together.
“FUN Connections is a program created since we had to go virtual,” said Jones in a recent phone interview. “We’re trying to stay in touch with the kids as much as possible.”
To do this, FUN Connections is linking the usual FUN mentors, mostly National Honors Society students from Newtown High School, with a special education student, in hopes that this connection will be beneficial to both.
“I call the parents [of the special needs student] and talk to them, ask them ‘Would you be interested in connection with FUN volunteers?’” Jones explained. If the response is positive, she has a mentor contact the parents to set up the connection.
The participants are serviced through a variety of ways, Jones said, whatever works best for the mentor and mentee.
“They’re texting, calling, using Facetime...” she said. Most of the mentors have just one connection, and she says they need to connect only once a week right now.
She is rolling out FUN Connections slowly. “This is such a learning curve. I don’t want to overwhelm the mentors. I’m very aware of the fact that I don’t want to overdo with anyone. Their lives have been altered a lot,” she said of the high school mentors, several of whom are taking online AP tests and otherwise handling new ways of learning.
Furthering connections, though, said Jones, some of the mentors have been creating videos to share on the Families United in Newtown Facebook page.
The videos include one on “How To Draw A Mandala,” by Anne Marie Carlson; “Hand Washing,” by Milan Chand; “That’s What Friends Are For,” from Ava Holmes; and a “sweet” video from Jane Shearin, explaining the canceled high school spring musical Pippin, as well as a song from the play.
Madelyn Aug, who is among ten WCSU singers to have earned honors recently, has also provided a video of herself singing Samuel Barber’s “Daisies,” said Jones.
Anne Marie Carlson, a junior at Newtown High School, is one of the FUN Connections mentors, as well as a two-year board member with Families United in Newtown. She looks forward to next year when she will be an executive board member for FUN, as much as she looks forward to her weekly connection with the second grade boy with whom she is currently partnered.
“I talk to him through Facetime,” Anne Marie said, “but I exchange texts with his mom to set up the time. He’s an only child,” she noted, so she feels that this kind of interaction is vital to keeping him connected during social distancing.
The conversations they have are simple. She asks him about his week “and what kinds of things he is doing; I ask what he does for school and he’ll ask me what I’m doing for school, too.” It is good practice for social response skills, she said.
The youngster is “quite interactive. He likes to talk a lot,” during the weekly conversations, Anne Marie said. “He’s invested, and that makes me happy.” The 45 minutes to an hour they converse seems just enough to hold his attention, she said.
She has also started mentoring a young woman, 20 years old, who contacted her through Jones, after viewing the video Anne Marie made and posted on the FUN Facebook site.
“How To Draw A Mandala” is one of several videos mentors are making to engage FUN members during this time of distancing.
“I really like to draw. I spend a lot of time doing that when I’m not doing school work,” said Anne Marie, “and I’m good at drawing [mandalas].” She taught herself to create the meditative style, intricate drawings and thought it would be fun to share how she draws them. The video was produced with the idea that FUN members of all ages and skill levels could learn to draw them, she said. “For some, maybe on a more basic level, not such an intense design [as I make].” She hopes that the repetitive pattern of a mandala “can help relax them if they’re feeling overwhelmed.”
The FUN Connection, said Anne Marie, is “a loving, smart way of reaching out to people. Any way that we can reach out, even if it’s just to brighten their day, gives me a good feeling to help someone out when they might not be having the best time.”
She hopes that this practice will become a consistent FUN activity. “I think [it] could be good even when there’s not a pandemic going on!” she exclaimed.
Milan Chand is a senior at Newtown High School and has been involved with FUN for two years. He is also part of FUN Connection.
His mentee is a young man, 17 years old. “We just call on the phone,” Milan said.
Because the young man is not very verbal, the mother is on the calls as well, giving feedback to Milan.
“I just ask him how he’s doing with quarantine, what he’s doing for fun. You can hear him saying words and I know he’s reacting to my responses,” said Milan.
FUN mentors wanted to make sure they reached out to everyone during this time of social distancing, he said, and he credits Jones for making the FUN Connection happen.
“We wanted to make sure everyone is doing okay,” Milan said, adding that the interaction helps the mentors as well as the mentees. “We’re all isolated right now,” he noted.
The “Hand Washing” video he created for the FUN Facebook site was originally Jones’ idea, he said, and he just had fun with it. “We have a balance of instructional stuff and fun stuff [on the site],” he said.
The FUN mentors are currently working on a video together, Milan said.
“That’s What Friends Are For” is the cooperative video, being produced by another FUN mentor, Ava Holmes, also a Newtown High School senior. In it, the mentors will all be holding up signs with positive messages.
“It’s to show we are still there for them,” said Ava, “and that they can reach out to us if they need to.”
She has been a FUN mentor for two years, too, and her mentee for FUN events and for FUN Connections is a special needs adult, a 25 year old man.
“He’s a little older, but I’ve created such a great relationship with him,” she said of her mentee, talking with him on the phone.
“He is verbal, but has his quirks. Sometimes his attention span isn’t there,” she admitted. He does love talking about future FUN events, though, “and his birthday, even if it’s months and months away. We talk about anything.”
Being part of FUN has been inspiring to Ava, who recently just declared her major for Fairfield University in the nursing program.
FUN has allowed her to “work with people, no matter who they are or where they come from,” said Ava, and that is a big positive for her.
Sophia Romano is another Newtown High School senior who has bee involved with the FUN program since her junior year. “I joined in the fall and then became a leader and on the board the end of my junior year,” she said.
Her mentee is an 18-year-old woman that she has partnered with through the regular FUN events.
“We prefer to Facetime each other [to communicate with FUN Connections],” said Sophia. “It’s so much easier than over the phone, more realistic as to how we used to communicate.”
The conversations, Sophia said, take the track that they would with any of her other friends.
“We talk about ‘girl’ things and what we’re doing, that kind of stuff. I love talking to her,” said Sophia.
Like other FUN mentors, she is also working on a video to share on the group’s Facebook page. Hers will be “a little art tutorial on painting,” she said. “I’m a recreational painter, so this is just free style. It doesn’t require a lot of skill. It’s just for fun and expression.”
It is good for the typical students to be able to give back, Jones said, adding, “They’re wonderful, wonderful kids.”
Any special needs person who desires to be connected with a FUN Connections mentor can contact Linda Jones at 203-512-6284.