Get to know ... Carolynn Kaufman of the New Canaan Y
NEW CANAAN — On a rainy recent Tuesday morning the New Canaan YMCA was buzzing with activity. Red-faced gymgoers coming out of classes passed by fresh-faced arrivees in the lobby and cars circled the parking lot waiting for a space to materialize.
The bustling atmosphere may well be a result of the Y’s large membership, which, according to Vice President of Financial Development, Marketing and Strategic Initiatives Kristina Barrett, consists of roughly 40 percent of New Canaanites. And among those many members are a large portion of the town’s special needs population.
Carolynn Kaufman, the Y’s Director of Special Needs Programming since 2011, has been instrumental in creating a sense of community within that population, creating an integrative schedule of programming that encourages participation in all areas of the Y, from the pool, to the gym, to the basketball courts for young men and women with special needs.
Recently returned from a mission trip to Kenya with a group of her Y colleagues, Kaufman sat down with the New Canaan News to discuss the extensive list of programs she’s helped to cultivate, serving the needs of the special needs community and the path that led her to the Y.
Can you tell me a little about your trip to Kenya?
The Y has an international partnership with a school in Kenya that’s in the largest slum in Africa called Kibera. The school has grown quite a bit and now has about 330 students, so every few years the Y looks for some volunteers to send over for a mission trip to do some work at the school and give some feedback and report on the progress that’s happened there.
We spent four days working in the school, visited some homes of the students’ families and saw the living conditions. We brought nine big duffel bags of supplies.
It was amazing to see the work in action and all the donations that the Y has given to the school, to see what they’ve done with it and to see these kids really flourish.
When did the special needs program begin at the Y?
It started with camp assistance close to 20 years ago, providing assistance so kids with special needs could attend summer camp and providing extra support in that camp group.
I think the idea of the special needs programming really blossomed when Craig Panzano, our executive director, came on board. That was one of the things he really wanted to start - expanding from just summer services to programming.
What is the demand for special needs programming like in the community?
The community has a very large special needs population. A lot of families moved here for the very strong school district and services that are offered here. So what they found was that the Y really responded to the community need. There were so many kids here now in town with nothing to do after school and on the weekends, so it just seemed like a natural fit.
The Y started offering some part-time programming and it’s grown from there. Now we offer about 15 programs a week for kids with special needs and young adults. We offer regular programming, the same programming that’s offered to our membership, and we sort of adapt it a little bit. So we’ll have yoga, music, art classes, strength training. We have this great big Bouncing Bears gym — we do lots of stuff in there — and, of course, the pool.
Has the community been supportive in terms of volunteerism?
We have volunteers in almost every one of our programs now. It’s something we work really hard to do. We work with New Canaan High School. And we get a lot of kids from Fairfield Prep because they’ve got a service requirement, and those boys are awesome. I don’t think they realize coming in the bonds that they’re going to make. They end up coming back after they graduate and sometimes they’ll work for us over the summer.
We have to keep on it and consistently work at it. We could always use more. I’m never going to turn anybody away because you can never have too many kids interacting with each other.
Is it common for a YMCA to offer the breadth of special needs programming that New Canaan does?
I think we’re one of the only ones that offers to this extent. I do think there are other Ys, particularly locally, that offer special needs programming and the summer services as well. But I think the extent of what we offer makes us unique.
Do you regard the Y as a local hub for special needs programming?
I would say for recreational programming, yes. We don’t offer any therapy or any therapeutic services. But all our programming is social and recreational for the kids.
And by offering the programs it truly opens our doors. We have some teens that come every day to the Y. if we didn’t offer these programs they may pop in to use the gym or the pool but it wouldn’t be as big a community as it is.
It’s become quite a culture in our membership in general. I don’t think anybody bats and eye when our kids with special needs are walking around or doing programs here. It’s become such a big part of what we do, and all of our staff are amazing and accepting.
We have people like myself and other educators and teachers aids in the program to help the kids as needed, but we have our yoga instructors, our personal trainers and our coaches to work with the kids and we sort of help adapt the programs and help the kids as needed.
We try to break into every area of the Y. Everything that the Y has to offer, the special need kids can do. We play basketball, we play lacrosse, we do Bouncing Bears, we do the wellness center, we do yoga, we do karate.
What’s the most popular special needs program offered?
Our most popular program is called our Teen Scene. We do a different special event every week at the Y. So we’ll bring in an entertainer like a magician, or do a science night, or do indoor walking — which is almost like a spin class. We’re giving the kids many different opportunities to engage. And then we also take them out into the community. We’ll go out to dinner and things like that.
Where were you prior to joining the Y in 2011?
I have a masters in education and I studied recreational therapy. Prior to being here, I worked for years in health care in skilled nursing facilities working with the elderly.
This is my first job in community recreation. It’s an incredible opportunity for someone with my background to be able to work in the community and have the opportunity to provide programming to the special needs population.