Many of these youngsters may never attend a school dance. But on a mid-October Tuesday, with tunes spun by Deejay Vinnie, some 40 local children with special needs got a chance to strut their stuff at Central Michigan University.
About 45 CMU students are involved with the campuswide service-learning group known as Connections That Count. They volunteer their time to play each Tuesday and Wednesday evening with kids from Mount Pleasant and Farwell. Activities include swimming, bowling, arts and crafts, and — for last two years — a night of dance.
Andrea Secor, a senior in special education, is the student leader of the group, coordinating much of the logistics between activities and available students. “Connections That Count just makes me smile,” she said. “It’s hard for me to think about not being a part of it.”
Under the direction of founder Joan Hogan, a special education faculty member, the group started as an all-student volunteer effort to help one family in need 12 years ago. Then, around the holidays, a Mount Pleasant mother of six, whose youngest has special needs, suffered severe injuries in an automobile accident. Eight CMU students worked in shifts from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. to help a busy, healing family through their day-to-day routines.
“The students worked with that family for 21 weeks,” Hogan said. “When it was over, one of them asked, ‘What do we do next?’ And it hasn’t stopped since.”
The group, eventually named Connections That Count by Holly Hoffman, chair of counseling and special education, continued to work with families and kids individually. As word of their efforts continued to spread throughout the community, they selected group activities, which are now part of the standard Tuesday and Wednesday fare.
The community responded, too. Half a dozen businesses, including Market on Main, Max and Emily’s Eatery, Panera Bread, Robaire's Bakery, Stanley’s Famous Restaurant and The Brass Café, all provide healthy lunches for the kids. Meemic Insurance contributed $5,000 to the cause earlier this year.
For Deejay Vinnie, otherwise known as Vinnie Crego, a self-described super senior in special education, the community partnership witnessed over the last five years is awe-inspiring. “I would have never expected to see this many kids, volunteers and parents involved,” he said.
Alicia Belmore, a local parent, believes Connections That Count has made her daughter more sociable. “I think Morgan just likes having friends — both the CMU students and her peers,” she said.
Many of the CMU students report that it’s nice to spend time with kids outside of an academic setting. “Many of us are going to be teachers and Connections That Count is something we can replicate somewhere else,” said Jimmy Nuse, a senior in special education. “It’s a great flagship program for CMU.”