Wheelchair Accessible Van Provides the SPARC Needed for Community Organization March 26, 2021 With COVID-19 restriction many of us have been stuck in our homes for about a year now. Many of us still working from home and getting groceries delivered, may not leave our homes for weeks. For adults with Intellectual or Developmental Disabilities (IDD), that has been a normal experience of their everyday lives for years. According to a LifeWays survey given pre—COVID-19, 65% of adults with IDD spend 98% of their time in their homes. That means they only leave their home for doctor’s visits and other appointments. One of the promises of the Mental Health Millage, in both Jackson and Hillsdale Counties, was to change that. Providing day services for adults with IDD, brings opportunities for social interaction, to learn life skills and, most importantly, to leave their home, an important distinction of a community-based mental health system. Two organizations have been supported by millage money in this cause, CLUBLIFE in Jackson and St. Paul’s Ability Resource Center (SPARC) in Hillsdale. SPARC received a 15-passenger, wheelchair accessible Ford Transit Van in November 2019 thanks to the passing of the Hillsdale County Mental Health Millage. The van was unveiled at the SPARC Annual Christmas Party on December 8, 2019 before a cheering crowd of SPARC participants and supporters. Following the hiring of a Van Driver/Assistant and a second SPARC assistant, the van was put into use on January 29, 2020. The SPARC van allows participants who don’t usually leave their home the opportunity to participate in community activities. In Michigan, students with IDD can attend school until the age of 26, which is one of the oldest of any states. However, once they age out of school, they go from having somewhere to go Monday through Friday to only leaving their home for medical appointments. They are missing out on the important experience of community involvement, social activities, and skill development. Many of the SPARC participants are just learning to participate in activities outside of school. SPARC programs also support the efforts of local school districts, encouraging students to explore talents, interests, and friendships in a community environment. The availability of transportation to SPARC programs impacted the number of participants immediately. The van was used by individuals who did not have transportation from family members, but also for participants craving independence to come to events without their family. In the first 3 months of 2020, attendance for SPARC programs continued to grow. They attended the annual Snowball Dance (formal event of the year), Cardio Drumming, Hangtime Basketball, Pizza Baking Day and even a Hillsdale College Autism Awareness Basketball Game. Hangtime Basketball grew to the point that SPARC was even considering expanding to two open gym times. Another important event was the Hillsdale College Alternative Spring Break Mission Trip, where many college students bringing their talents to spend time with participants. The van allowed participants that use wheelchairs the opportunity to join in on this event for the first time. One participant who uses a wheelchair, usually only attends SPARC classes in the summer, because her family does not have a wheelchair accessible van and has to walk with her to classes. Finally, in 2020, she was able to attend the Snowball Dance and a college basketball game for the first time ever. Even for those families that do have wheelchair accessible vans, the ability for participants to attend events independently has been a game changer. Another participant who uses a wheelchair surprised staff with a call requesting a ride to Pizza Baking Day. Just being able to attend the event by herself was a special moment for her and for her family. Another family welcomes the opportunity for their sons to ride to SPARC programs, participate independently, and return home by themselves. Many families express their gratitude that their son or daughter can get themselves ready and get a ride to SPARC. The pride in the participants faces, as well, in those “I did it myself” moments is truly special. As we all remember, COVID-19 and the State of Michigan Shelter in Place began in March and activities were at a halt for several months. When SPARC programs did resume in June of 2020, events were held outside, all participants wore masks, and everyone maintained physical distancing. The classes were small and very limited in number. Safety was the number one priority for both participants and staff. There were gardening activities, bike rides and art classes on the grounds of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. As SPARC continued to offer programs at the two sites SPARC (68 Waldron Street) and St. Paul’s Lutheran Church (2551 W. Bacon Road) in Hillsdale, the classes remain capped at 5 participants with 2-3 staff members present. The creativity of staff continued as activities became both deliverable and on site. The annual SPARC Christmas Party was packed up into individual SPARC Christmas Party in a Bag kits and delivered to group homes and individual family homes. Each bag contained cookies to decorate, supplies and directions to make gifts, a packet of hot chocolate mix, a recipe and ingredients for a single serving of pizza. With the help of volunteers and the SPARC van, staff delivered 120 Christmas Party kits. Art classes are also available as a delivery, with 40 SPARC Art at Home kits being delivered to group homes and a few family homes monthly. Each SPARC Art at Home kit contains enough supplies to complete 3-4 art projects, identical to what is completed in the on-site classes. The cooking class continued during COVID-19 with changes to ensure safety for everyone. The class enjoys following recipes adapted for a single serving and they take home their creations to enjoy for lunch. Photography is the newest class offering. The van transports participants to outdoor venues like Lake Baw Beese and Lewis Emery Park to take photos. The photos are displayed at both locations, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and SPARC, and participants are also able to take home their favorite framed photos to display. The staff have placed a camera in a local group home for them to participate remotely. There are plans to expand to other homes in the future. Yes, staff and volunteers have had to adapt and change the way programs are delivered, but the basic essence of what it means to provide community activities for people with IDD remains in place. They have been able to enrich the lives of many participants in new and different ways. The classes are small for now, but SPARC still witnesses those opportunities for self-expression, creativity, joy and above all those special “I did it myself” moments. The SPARC van has made a spectrum of possibilities available to the IDD population of Hillsdale and will continue to do so through 2021.