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Amy (LaGrotte) and Chris McCann (both '02) in front of the Coop, where some of Carousel Connection's participants worked this summer.
Amy (LaGrotte) and Chris McCann (both '02) in front of the Coop, where some of Carousel Connection's participants worked this summer.

Carousel Connections Comes to Haverford

There was another group of young people living in the Haverford College Apartments (HCA) this summer among the student-workers and student-researchers who stayed on campus after classes ended. A group of young adults with special needs, ages 16 to 24, lived and worked at Haverford as part of a new program, called Carousel Connections, launched by two alumni.

Amy (LaGrotte) McCann and Chris McCann (both Class of ’02), who work as teachers at local Friends schools during the academic year, created Carousel Connections as an offspring of Carousel Farm, a recreational day camp that is owned and directed by the LaGrotte family in Bucks County. After years of serving children with special needs and their families there, the McCanns felt there was an opportunity to provide a program that could teach life, social and job skills to older teens and adults who had aged out of the camp and were ready to transition to a more independent life.

“There’s a whole collection of families that started at Carousel Farm when Amy started directing it [whose kids] were probably 8, 9, 10 [years old],” says Chris. “And they’re hitting 18, 19, 20 now, which is when families start to think about the next step.”

“Families would be coming to us and asking about what programs are out there,” says Amy, “but there really wasn’t anything that encompassed not just vocational training but also an independent-living experience.”

Sensing a need for such a transitional, educational program for the special needs community, the McCann’s created their own. But finding a place to host their nascent program was a surprisingly difficult task. “Everybody thinks your program is great, somewhere else,” says Chris of the neighbors and zoning boards who didn’t want them moving young people with special needs into their neighborhoods. But then they brought their idea to Haverford’s 8th Dimension Director Mary Louise Allen, and within a year the McCanns, their first 10 participants and the four Haverford students they’d hired to staff their new program were all moving into HCA 22.

“We knew we were coming in to a community that we were hopeful would be embracing, and they really have been,” says Amy of Haverford. “It’s been really neat to see… One of the ultimate goals anytime you’re working in the specialized education world is to get folks recognizing that differences are okay and [special needs] aren’t anything to be afraid of. Folks might need some accommodations, but at the same time, everybody has different capabilities and strengths and talents.”

“I love being back,” says Chris of living on campus once again. “It is kind of fun to walk up the HCA path every morning and to walk into the Coop and to see professors, too.”

The program participants all live together, 10 to 17 people at a time in three two-week sessions, in a big open-floor-plan unit in HCA. (Carousel Connections hosted 24 participants in total over the course of the summer.) Chris, Amy, their young son Abe and the four Ford staffers, Mary Hobbs ’13, Eric Chesterton ’11, Hannah Davis ’13 and Hannah Zieve ’14, live with them and help guide their daily routines. The participants learn to shop for and prepare their own meals, and divvy up chores to keep the apartment tidy. They also hold campus jobs with the Coop, the Arboretum, facilities and the Dining Center, and meet daily in the Douglas B. Gardner '83 Integrated Athletic Center (GIAC) to exercise and socialize. Weekends find the group taking trips into the city of Philadelphia, boating in a state park or attending a Camden Riversharks game.

“Their families are amazed to see what their children are really capable of when they are outside of the home,” says Amy, “and to know that there are steps that they can start taking [to give them more independence] after they’ve come home. We’ve had families that have said, ‘I know I need to back off.’”

Jonathan Birenbaum, says his daughter Alex has exhibited a great sense of pride and accomplishment in her abilities since her return from the program. “During her time at Haverford, she developed a level of independence that is remarkable,” he says. “Her comfort zone and capabilities have both expanded tremendously.”

The experience has been meaningful not just for the participants, who have developed new skills and lived away from home for perhaps the first time in their lives, and their parents, but also for the staff and organizers, who plan to bring Carousel Connections back to campus next summer.

“The most special part of working at Carousel Connections has been watching the Haverford community embrace the program,” says Hobbs, one of the four Ford residential staff members. “I’ve seen several occasions where not only is the community reaching out to accept our program, but also members of Carousel Connections brightening the days of community members. Whether it's a Haverford baseball player assisting a Carousel friend with a workout routine or one of our participants making friends with a staff member or student, we seem to have assimilated ourselves into the community.”

“Amy and Chris are truly amazing to watch with our participants at Carousel Connections,” says Davis, another of the Fords on the staff. “Their patience, understanding and real gift for working with this particular population of people is what makes this camp work so successfully… They have done a great job at making a connection with the Haverford community, and I hope that this bond will last for years to come because I know that it is benefitting both our participants and all of Haverford’s community.”

-Rebecca Raber

Founders Green on a warm spring day.

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