January 1st, 2010

Name change for day program reflects services

What’s in a name? To the Massachusetts organization formerly known as Handi Kids., everything.

For one thing, this vocational and life skills program for clients ages three to-22 with wide-ranging disabilities, Handi Kids no longer serves just “kids” … especially with its popular therapeutic riding program that attracts a number of adult participants. But aside from issues of accuracy, aesthetics (there’s a bridge on the property) and location (Bridgewater, Mass.), the board of directors learned that the organization’s name was sending a subliminal message it wanted to stop.

“We’d heard that some families chose not to look at our program because that’s not how they saw their kids,” referring to the “handi” in the name, says Director Jenn Harber. After surveys and focus groups leading the strategic planning of the name change, one question was posed to families of participants: What do you think of our name? The feedback, says Harber, was loud and clear.

“From a program point of view, we feel very strongly that ‘The Bridge Center’ represents what we do: Building resiliency for people with disabilities through growth and empowerment,” says Harber, who has directed the program for the past seven months.

The Bridge Center (the “B-r-i-d-g-e” stands for Harber’s aforementioned “Building Resilience and Independence for people with Disabilities through Growth and Empowerment”) comprises a 20-acre, four-season facility that provides ample space for rambling for its clients with disabilities ranging from Asperger’s and high-functioning autism spectrum disorders; blindness, deafness and cerebral palsy; and physical and mental disabilities.

Many have multiple diagnoses. The therapeutic riding program offers clients the chance to take lessons, care for the animals and try their hand at the many responsibilities of running a barn. And art-based programs and typical outdoor summer camp activities like water and ground sports, arts and crafts, music and dance, nature walks, movies and other activities, keep busy its participants and the hundreds of volunteers needed to keep it all running.

The Bridge Center strives toward inclusion by accepting clients regardless of the degree of their diagnosis, but it also accepts participants (almost) regardless of something else: what they can afford. The Bridge Center’s innovative bartering structure allows family members skilled in various professions to exchange their talents and services for full or partial payment for their child’s attendance. From a parent owning a screen-printing business who can supply the endless tee shirts handed out to the program’s 1,000 yearly participants, to hammer-wielding parents offering construction services (“We have 20 acres!” exclaims Harber), family members can earn Bridge Center clients credits used toward tuition based on volunteer hours.

“We think it’s incredibly important to help families to come to the program,” says Harber. Camp programs are offered year-round and comprise after school, weekend and summer camp options. And starting in January 2010, The Bridge Center will launch “Bridges to Independence: Friends, Work Life,” a Saturday skill-development program for teens and young adults that will assist with career skills (resume writing, interview etiquette and time management); life skills (hygiene, basic cooking, and money sense); vocational experience (filing, office support, cleaning); and social and emotional skills (self-awareness, flexibility, and body language).

“What makes me passionate about my work is the work itself, and that providing out-of-school-time experiences for children changes lives,” says Harber. Reflecting on her job, she admits that her own compulsion and love for camping was so great she turned it into a career. “I started [camp] at six and I’ve never left.”

By Jennifer E Chase

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