Diana Simpson has a 21-year-old daughter with special needs. “Megan is extremely disabled. She’s on a feeding tube and she takes oxygen,” said Simpson. “She is not the typical young child you see. So I know what it’s like to feel like you don’t belong.”
For special needs children there are typically programs available. But once they become older, it’s a different story. Programs are scarce. Those that exist have limited availability or may not include individuals with more severe handicaps.
“It’s an underserved community,” said Simpson. “We have an underserved population of people that have fallen through the cracks for years.”
It was with that in mind that Simpson came to Mayor Michael Gonnelli last year looking for programs for her daughter, and he engaged her to create what has become Exceptional People of Secaucus. Her research turned up a similar group in Bayonne that has been operating since the 1970s and they provided initial insights.
Recently, the group participated in a heartwarming event.
Like any commercial kitchen on a busy night, the Secaucus Community Center kitchen was crowded with bodies weaving around one another, busily handling different functions, preparing the food for the evening meal. There was no sense of urgency or rush to complete the orders, however. Instead the mood was festive, joyous, celebratory, with everyone eager to participate.
“We really have an underserved population of people that have fallen through the cracks for years.” –Diana Simpson
He added, “I was very skeptical at first. But this is amazing. There was a real connection here.”
Members of EPOS, for whom Simpson is program coordinator, lined up to help prepare the food, stirring the pasta to make mac and cheese, dipping chicken fingers in egg and breadcrumbs. Smiles were everywhere as they rolled up their sleeves and got busy discovering how to cook a basic meal.
“They’re learning,” said Deborah Norton, the “Ambassador of Bonefish,” who greets and seats patrons at the restaurant and came down to help out. “If they were just standing around watching us cook it wouldn’t have been like this. But participating? It makes a lot of difference. They’re so happy.”
“This is the first time I’ve done something like this,” said Bartolomeo. “I’ve done cooking demos previously, but for people who were paying for it. This is incredible.”
“The members are going to take away something from this,” said Simpson. “Somebody actually took the time to give them the opportunity to make something. They made this with their hands, what they’re going to eat. It’s really rewarding in so many ways. For the members, for me, for the chefs, for my counselors.”
Building the program
In March of this year, the mayor and Town Council of Secaucus approved a resolution to establish The Town of Secaucus Committee for People with Special Needs, designed to provide “organized recreational, educational, social, and skill building activities and programming for all age groups from children to adults, and raise general awareness about the needs and rights of persons with special needs.”
The committee pulled together the town’s existing programs for individuals with special needs, and expanded their focus and outreach. EPOS was established under the umbrella of the new committee to provide for adults with special needs.
EPOS was launched in April after securing a Community Development Block Grant for partial funding. The group has since expanded from an initial 16 or so members to 23, with about 17 regulars, ranging from late teens to 60s.
“I refer to them as members because we are a group,” said Simpson. “To me we are an elite group of exceptional people.”
They meet every Monday night and offer a different activity each week, including movies, sports, and crafts. Their home base is the community center at 145 Front Street.
Recently the town renovated the kitchen in the facility, providing modern, upgraded amenities. Simpson arranged for Bonefish Grill to come in, resulting in this first Wednesday night cooking session. In November, Carrabba’s Restaurant will be visiting to offer similar services.
Local restaurants have supported the program from inception, with the kickoff event held at Outback in April, and Bonefish offering one free meal every week to a family with a special needs individual. Blackjack Mulligan’s in town has also hosted the group for free.
Medieval Times has invited the group to visit in the near future, and Simpson has planned events for the upcoming holidays. She is hoping to find a restaurant to sponsor a Christmas party for the members.
An underserved community
“I think what makes us unique is I am really focusing in on life skills, which a lot of them lose when they leave school,” said Simpson. Hence the cooking program, designed to teach members how to prepare a simple meal for themselves.
But at least as important is the community involvement aspect. That involves not only getting local businesses and individuals to support the program, but getting the members out into the community. In the past, special needs individuals have often been isolated from the mainstream. EPOS aims to change that.
“We don’t segregate anybody,” said Simpson. “We don’t put the special people in the back” when they visit a restaurant. “I think we’re seeing this new way that people are starting to think. It’s becoming more accepted. And I think we need to have it more. We need to have more interaction in the community and to sensitize the community.”
She sees a change in younger generations, a growing acceptance of individuals with special needs, as opposed to the past when they were shunted off to the side. “Three of my counselors are siblings of special needs children,” she said. “So I think they have that sort of ingrained in them, that compassion and caring. I think as these young people are getting older, it’s changing. This whole way of thinking is changing. I’m excited. I have a son who is 12 years old and his friends come over and they’re like, ‘Hey, Meg, what’s up?’ It’s very accepting.”
A successful event
The meal was a colossal success. Everyone had a spectacular time, culminating in brownies for dessert and a birthday celebration for one of the members.
Back in the kitchen, the Bonefish staff were stoked. “I had a lot of fun,” said Senior Manager Lauren Sowers, who handled much of the hands-on cooking training. “They were all so eager to jump in there and get involved.”
Bartolomeo was energized and ready to come back for another session. “If each person gives just a little, it will make a big difference,” he said. “That’s what we need to do.”
As for Norton, she was perhaps most inspired of all. “I’m going to come here and work Mondays,” she said. “I mean that. I’ll do half a day Monday and come up here and help out. Most definitely.”
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.