The New Canaan YMCA recently partnered with the National Inclusion Project to supplement the Y's current Special Needs Initiative.

As a part of the partnership, YMCA staff were visited and trained by a representative from the National Inclusion Project. The four-hour training included information and exercises that provided Y staff in all different departments with the tools and knowledge on how to best interact with and support people of all abilities and personalities, strengthening the effort for the Y to provide a place where all are welcome and can grow.

The National Inclusion Project was co-founded in 2003 by entertainer Clay Aiken, and works to bridge the gap between young people with disabilities and the world around them by opening doors for all children to be included together, primarily achieved through recreational programs and training to make after school programs, summer camps and classroom activities inclusive for all children. Its Let's ALL Play program is a research-validated national model funded by the project that brings an inclusive recreational experience to children with disabilities by giving them the same experience as children without disabilities. All children come together to participate in typical recreational activities, such as swimming, arts and crafts, community service and physical fitness. Over the last three years, the project has provided training, curriculum and support to Ys, Boys & Girls Clubs, 4H, CampFire USA, and other community organizations.

In 2013, the project is partnering with 85 recreational programs in 34 states.

"We feel that working with the New Canaan YMCA will help us further our mission to open doors in communities nationwide for children with disabilities to experience everything life has to offer," said Jerry Aiken, executive director of the National Inclusion Project.

More Information

Fact box

Carolynn Kaufman, the Y's director of special needs programming, "I think we've done a really nice job of opening our doors here at the Y to make sure everyone feels welcome. Before joining the National Inclusion Project, though, only our Special Needs Department staff had received formal training in the topic. The inclusive attitude was already present among our other staff, and this training provided tools for all staff to be confident in serving all people -- from interacting with members to the planning process for programs."

Mary Coleman, who attended the training and serves as the Y's assistant director of membership operations and communications, said, "I felt proud and privileged to be part of an organization that recognizes the benefits of training/educating the entire organization of the importance of inclusion. The Y recognizes that inclusion goes beyond the classroom. It is a value that parallels and complements our core values. It is important for our entire organization to understand.

"I found it interesting to learn that everyone, not just those with learning disabilities, have different ways of processing information. Understanding and recognizing those differences can help us to be more flexible and imaginative in the way we structure activities so that everyone has an opportunity to feel good about their participation."

The YMCA serves more than 100 individuals with special needs.

Alex Eveland, an 11-year-old participant in the special needs programs and summer camper, said, "Camp Y-Ki is awesome. Everyone is really nice. I like swimming in the water, singing camp songs, and playing gaga with my friends."

For information, contact Kaufmann at 203-966-4528, ext. 156, or ckaufman@newcanaanymca.org.