FUN Tentatively Launches Fall Plans With Outdoor Dance Party
Families United in Newtown (FUN) and its founder Linda Jones, along with a dedicated new group of Newtown High School National Honors Society volunteers, are taking the first tentative steps toward programming school year activities to provide social and emotional support to local families with youths on the autism spectrum.
After being forced to cancel or significantly alter its spring events and meetings in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the group in cooperation with Newtown Parks & Rec has scheduled a September 27 Back to School Dance Party at Dickinson Park from 2 to 4 pm. Activities will be conducted outdoors by the bandshell, or under the pavilion in case of rain, with all attendees required to maintain appropriate distancing and to wear face coverings.
“March 7 was our last pre-pandemic meeting,” Jones said of the St. Patrick’s Day-themed get together at the Newtown Congregational Church. “I remember we had hand sanitizers at every table, and all the kids did really well. They were already elbow bumping and beginning to practice non-contact behavior.”
As the health crisis grew more dire, Jones said her Class of 2020 volunteers continued to engage the younger FUN participants as best they could.
“We developed a program called FUN Connections where our students did phone check-ins with the kids and Zoom calls so they could have some face-to-face interaction. That was really important because I don’t think a lot of people outside our circle knew how isolated a lot of these kids on the spectrum were,” she said.
Ann Marie Carlson, one of the volunteers, decided she would lead simple art projects via Zoom with some of the older FUN teens, while maintaining a regular weekly routine of check-in calls with one of the younger members.
A Subdued Summer
Heading into the summer, FUN was unable to hold its traditional end-of-school thank you and recognition picnic for the group’s departing seniors, so Jones ended up visiting a number of the outgoing students and surprising them with balloons and baked treats. Some of the students also joined Jones visiting younger FUN members to help celebrate their birthdays.
“We decided we are going to continue recognizing everyone, celebrating birthdays at our get-togethers to the extent that we can through this school year,” Jones said. “It’s important for us to maintain connections between as many of the honors kids and our FUN kids as possible, either at distanced in-person activities or using technology,” she said. “These visits can be a lifeline to our kids who otherwise can’t get out.
“We keep hearing how challenging it is for a lot of our families with kids on the spectrum,” Jones added, “so we’re trying anything we can think of — the social emotional connection is more important than ever these days.”
Since a lot of the FUN member youths and NHS Honors volunteers are into soccer, she said the September 27 meeting at Dickinson will introduce some soccer-themed activities. Parents and caregivers are welcome and are encouraged to bring a blanket or lawn chair so they can enjoy the day as well, albeit from the “sidelines.”
While Jones and her 2021 students and executive board leaders have not defined any further meeting or event opportunities yet, they are hard at work determining how to host some type of Halloween function — typically one of the most popular gatherings each year, where members can get out and show off their costumes.
“Like the kids, our adult supporters are also waiting anxiously to see what happens with the virus situation. We’re very limited to the venues we can use already, and as the weather gets cold, it’s going to become an even greater concern,” Jones said.
To help orientate new student volunteers, the outgoing 2020 FUN volunteers produced a training video that includes pandemic-related precautions and general mentoring advice.
“We’re in the final stages of editing now,” Jones said of the volunteer-driven video project. “As soon as we’re ready to launch, it will make a great tool to help our student volunteers and even our adults better understand what to do and what to expect when they start meeting and working with our kids.”
Help Or Support
On September 27, attendees at the Dickinson Park meeting will be entertained with music from DJ John Voket, and can enjoy ice cream from Ferris Acres Creamery.
The grassroots organization has been tapping Honors Society students and community volunteers since 2010, primarily offering supervised social and recreational activities for young people with developmental disabilities as well as those on the autism spectrum while concurrently helping raise awareness about autism and funds to support autism research.
Families United in Newtown began as a recreation program in memory of Tyler Jones, to help bring the community of special needs families together in a safe and welcoming place. At each FUN meeting, families are paired with a National Honors Society student from Newtown High School who will spend time with the kids, giving the parents a much-needed break.
Parents to Lindsey, Austin, and Tyler, Linda and Duane Jones turned the tragedy of Tyler’s untimely passing in 2009 into a positive living memorial for their beloved son.
Linda, a local registered dietitian and advocate for the autism community, saw a need for a community-based recreation program for families with special-needs children. She started fundraising in 2008 and hosted the first FUN meeting in 2010. Since then the group has expanded and serves many families from around Newtown and the region.
Any and all are welcome at FUN meetings. The organization also gratefully accepts tax-deductible donations to help underwrite the expense of activities, which are all offered free to participants.
To volunteer, donate, or for more information, visit familiesunitedinnewtown.org, or the Families United in Newtown Facebook page.