Last month, the Children’s Museum of Downtown Richmond (CMoR) hosted a Special Night at the museum, which became a gathering place for members of Virginia Down Syndrome Association (VDSA) and other families. Families with children who have disabilities were invited to let loose in a safe environment full of sensory friendly activities, mock professional settings and open, creative spaces.
For some members of VDSA, events like these at CMoR are their favorite part of engaging with the organization.
“There aren’t that many spaces that are super welcoming for kids and adults with disabilities,” one parent, Ame, says. “The fact that VDSA is here and there are places that we can go that will be safe, where Warren is going to be around his peers and he can make those connections, I find it vital.”
For Ame’s son Warren, being able to go to new places and meet new people is the highlight of being a part of the community.
Finding Community and Support
As the night gets started, families and children eagerly enter through the doors of the museum. Laughter and sounds of excitement fill the room as the line for the carousel is quick to fill up.
Some families have only been a part of the organization for about a year, like parents Ryan and Morgan and their daughter Tessa.
“It’s hard sometimes to figure out the best resources for her,” Morgan says. “To be able to engage with different parents who have already gone through it, that access to other parents is really nice.”
Others, like Tracy and her son Kyle, have been a part of VDSA for 13 years.
“He was one and in a stroller,” Tracy said. “When we started, there was a small group of kids, about 10 of them. It’s been neat to watch them all grow together close to the same age.”
And some families and parents, though not an official member of VDSA yet, come for the exposure and to network with other parents, like Alison and her son Karson. Having just moved back from Georgia, Alison is a single mom trying to juggle work and take care of her son.
“One of the nicer things is that it’s safe,” Alison says. “Everyone has the same thing going on, so somebody is looking out for your child.”
That sense of community and the opportunity to be around others who understand what it’s like to be a parent of a child with a disability is exactly why Valery and her son have been a part of VDSA for six years.
“My son doesn’t develop in the same way as my friends who have children the same age,” Valery explains. “His cognition is different; his skill level is different and its isolating to be a parent with a special needs child because our lives are completely different.”
No matter how long these families have been involved with VDSA, they all seem to agree that the organization is providing valuable resources and support—Special Nights at CMoR are a great example.
At the end of the day, VDSA Executive Director Jennifer Case hopes events like these will help other families find community and learn about VDSA sooner in their journey. Her other hope? Individuals with Down syndrome feel included as valued members of society.
“When people hear Down syndrome, they get this idea in their head about what that means,” Case said. “That idea is really tied to what Down syndrome looked like 50 years ago when individuals with Down syndrome weren’t raised in a family or given an education, opportunities and support. So, we’re still trying to break down a lot of those barriers.”
Formerly known as the Down Syndrome Association of Greater Richmond, VDSA has been around since 1983. The organization has helped families who have kids with Down syndrome with family care, social programming and education programs.
One of the organization’s newest initiatives, the Summer Employment Academy, contains a 4-week program helping teens with disabilities (ages 16-22) with job skill acquisition, resumes and mock interviews. Through the program, the students are paired with an employment partner to put those skills to practice.
VDSA is always looking for ways to support and uplift those with disabilities and their families. Summer Employment Academy teacher, Carol Coffin, says one of the most inspiring pieces of working alongside others at VDSA is developing new programming that will benefit the community.