Tag Archives: Abilis

Westport Y Puts Special Focus On Special Needs

Every day — at all hours — the Westport Weston Family YMCA pulses with activity.

The gym, pool, spin center, yoga and fitness rooms — all are filled with boys and girls, men and women, all active to whatever degree of intensity works for them.

It’s a friendly, vibrant place. Many members come regularly. They greet fellow basketball players, swimmers, runners and Zumbaists with smiles and waves.

Some of the heartiest greetings go to members with special needs. They may be in wheelchairs, or come in groups with aides. They may talk loudly, or not at all. All are welcome at the Y.

Enjoying the gym at the Westport Weston Family Y.

Their swims, workouts, classes and social interactions are among the highlights of their days. The folks who share the pool, fitness center and classrooms are happy to see them too.

The Westport Y offers group membership programs to 5 group homes in Fairfield County. Over 100 clients take advantage of the facility off Wilton Road.

Membership director Brian Marazzi says that STAR has the longest association with the Y: more than a decade. Clients with intellectual and developmental disabilities take part in a wide array of activities. Some arrive independently, to exercise.

STAR clients, outside the Westport Y.

St. Catherine Academy — a Fairfield-based private school — uses the warm pool for recreational swim and aqua-therapy for severely disabled clients. The group then socializes with a large group lunch in the lobby.

St. Catherine’s appreciates the family and dependent care locker room, which includes a private special needs shower and changing room. Staff also store equipment at the Y.

Ability Beyond and Keystone House clients focus on the Wellness Center. Members of Abilis — the newest group home to join the Y — primarily walk on the treadmill, and use the gym.

Some of the more independent clients come on their own. A few have become volunteers themselves, meeting and greeting guests.

But that’s only part of the way the Westport Y serves the special needs population.

Sixty kids and young adults ages 8 to 21 play basketball and floor hockey, swim and do track and field, under the guidance of paid and volunteer coaches. Many are involved in Special Olympics, but that is not a prerequisite for Y participation.

A special needs swimmer, and an equally enthusiastic volunteer.

The Sunday morning swim program is particularly popular. A 1:1 ratio of volunteers — many of them members of the Westport Water Rats team — to athletes ensures education, safety and fun. The special needs swimmers are also called Water Rats, and proudly wear the team’s logowear.

Strong bonds are clear. Over Christmas break, as volunteers returned from college, there were joyful reunions and hugs. Parents of special needs swimmers develop their own community too, as they watch from the deck or gym.

Oliver Clachko has made a special impact. He was last year’s near-unanimous choice as Westport Weston Family Y Volunteer of the Year. He enjoys working with the special needs program so much, he’s recruiting friends and classmates to help too.

This spring, the Y hosts its first-ever special needs swim meet.

The Westport Y Water Rat Special Olympics swim team.

Up in the gym, basketball players hone their skills. They compete too, in a “Hoopla” against other area Ys.

Special Needs Teen Nights are another popular event.

Marazzi says the Y has gotten very positive feedback — from clients, group home workers, parents of special needs youngsters, and other Y members too.

Occasionally, he says, members complain about noise or behavior. Marazzi quickly counters, “We love having them here. We’re very inclusive.”

It’s the Westport Weston Family YMCA, remember.

And don’t forget: There are many ways to define family.

(The Westport Y’s Special Olympics and other special needs programs rely in part on fundraising. Starting on her 10th birthday, Chloe Kiev asked that instead of gifts, friends and family donate to the effort. Click here for more information.) 

Rebecca Yormark: Abilis Ambassador

For 14 years, Abilis — the non-profit that supports hundreds of people with special needs, through education, advocacy, recreational activities, life skills support, job training and residential options — has sponsored a fundraiser.

There’s a 1-mile wheelchair and stroller accessible walk, a 5K run, children’s activities like face painting, crafts and a bouncy house, plus music and food. This year’s event is tomorrow (Sunday, October 20, 9 a.m., Tod’s Point, Greenwich).

Hundreds of folks will participate and watch. The walk will be led by Rebecca Yormark — a Westporter.

Rebecca Yormark

The 22-year-old is a great Abilis “ambassador.” The organization has helped her and her family transition from a residential school to a supported apartment.

Rebecca attends Abilis’ young adult LEAP transition program. She also volunteers in the community, and is getting ready for a job.

The walk is free to participate, but a donation to Abilis is appreciated. There is a $40 registration fee for the run for adults; $20 for children 11 to 17. Prizes are awarded for the top 3 men’s, women’s and children’s run finishers; team awards go to those with the most members, and who raise the most money. Creativity awards are given for the most unique run and walk outfits.

Rebecca will enjoy the day. So will her many friends and fans.

Congratulations, Rebecca, on leading Abilis this weekend!

Bang The Drum, Randy

Work brought Randy Brody to Westport from Brooklyn 40 years ago. The job did not work out, but he stayed.

He did animation and special effects for films. He also wrote, and traveled the world. In his free time, he played drums. More than 25 years ago, he began leading drumming circles in South Norwalk.

Randy Brody

His circles grew to 25 people. No matter what kind of day he or anyone else had, at the end of a drum circle everyone felt good.

When Randy realized that technical writing was not for him, he turned his attention more seriously to drumming. He took classes in music therapy, studied improvisation and music teaching, and improved as a hand drummer.

As he delved into African, Middle Eastern and Brazilian percussion, he thought to himself: “This is why I’m on this planet.”

In 2001 — around the time he turned 50 — Randy left the corporate world.

His first drum circle gig was at The Marvin, a senior residence in Norwalk. He set up in the living room. Within a few minutes, everyone was having a great time. “Even people having trouble walking were drumming and dancing,” Randy recalls.

The director asked when Randy was coming back — and what he charged. He had never thought about either question.

Randy walked into senior centers like Westport’s, and assisted living facilities like the Greens at Cannondale. He had no appointments, but was welcomed in.

No one else was doing anything like it. Within a year or two, he was known as The Drum Guy. He was in demand from New Jersey to Massachusetts.

Randy Brody with adults…

Next, Randy organized drum circles for young adults with special needs.

“I experienced the healing power of drumming. It was therapeutic for them — and me,” he says. “I’d never had that sense of fulfillment in any job. Now I never have a bad day at work.”

Group drumming creates high energy and builds community, Randy says. It reduces cortisol (stress hormone) levels.

It helps people with chronic diseases. One person told him, “For an hour, I forget I’m fighting cancer.”

He’s heard a nurse say of an Alzheimer’s patient, “He can’t do anything.” Five minutes later, the same person is drumming — and smiling.

Randy also does one-on-one sessions with autistic children. Sometimes the entire family joins in.

… and a younger drummer.

These days, his main work is with Abilis. Several times a months, he leads drum circles for the Greenwich-based special needs non-profit.

“It’s so rewarding, sitting in a circle playing hand drums,” he notes. “There’s such a connection between the group, the therapists, social workers and me. They’ve become my family.”

Some autistic youngsters can’t speak, or express themselves. But, Randy says, they relate to drums. And when they see him coming, they smile.

Every drum circle is different. But each time, Randy leaves with a full heart.

In the last few years, Randy has had his own medical issues. But he brings his drums to the hospital. Even after surgery, he plays.

It helps with pain management. The doctors think it’s helpful for recovery.

And, Randy smiles, “All the nurses start dancing.”

(Randy Brody will put together a drum circle for anyone — including corporations. Click here for more information. Hat tip: Sarah Gross.)