When 10-year-old Sammy, who is autistic, first met other children, he’d aggressively tell them to go away. However, this all changed one day at a Shane’s Inspiration playground when he participated in a “buddy program” with mainstream kids. Facilitators worked side-by-side with Sammy and his assigned “buddy,” helping bridge the communication divide with the playground instead of forcing verbal language.
After two hours, Sammy was sitting happily in the middle of 80 children eating a Popsicle. It was nothing short of remarkable when, at one point, he reached over and wrapped his buddy’s arm around him.
Had these two kids met in a school hallway, they probably would have steered clear of each other. But with a little professional guidance and a great outdoor arena, both children flourished. Sammy learned to trust someone new, and his buddy learned to feel comfortable with someone who appeared different.
Tiffany Harris, CEO and co-founder of Shane’s Inspiration, sums it up: “We want to foster a bias-free world where children with disabilities can play with other children. Building a bridge of friendship is the end game.”
Shane’s Inspiration was formed in 1998—a year after Sherman Oaks couple Catherine Curry-Williams and Scott Williams lost their infant son, Shane Alexander, to Spinal Muscular Atrophy. If he’d lived, he would have spent his life in a wheelchair. It was this realization that spurred Catherine and Scott to think about how their child would have played. With best friend Tiffany Harris at their side, they set out on a mission to build a Universally Accessible Playground where all children could learn to play together.
“Catherine is a force of nature. She rallied so many people to this cause. It was just extraordinary to watch someone who used her grief to move something forward like this,” says Tiffany.
Shane’s Inspiration at Griffith Park opened in 2000 with more than $1 million in donations. It has since raised more than $40 million and has opened 40 playgrounds, reaching as far away as India. Here in the Valley, their work can be seen at Griffith Park, Anthony C. Beilenson Park in Lake Balboa, Van Nuys/Sherman Oaks Park and Shadow Ranch Park in West Hills.
In addition to building playgrounds, Tiffany explains that the organization’s school programs, as well as their field trips and “Family Days,” are the key to keeping the playgrounds active. “We never build playgrounds just for disabilities; we build them to bring all kinds of people together at any given time.”
ACTORS FOR AUTISM
Alisa Wolf spent years searching for programs suitable for her autistic son. As a professional with a career working in non-profits, she was frustrated at not being able to find the right resources—until she found an acting class at an organization that was run at the time by Joey Travolta and Brad Koepenick.
She asked if they could incorporate more classes for kids on the autistic spectrum. Much to her surprise, they agreed. The idea for a non-profit, according to Wolf, “just snowballed,” and Actors for Autism was born. That was 2004, and since then, under the direction of Alisa as executive director, the organization has expanded from its headquarters in Tarzana to branches in Beverly Hills, Ventura and Atlanta.
Actors for Autism serves both children and adults with programs year-round, including classes in digital filmmaking, dance, music and social skills, as well as a professional development program for educators. A star attraction is the Advanced Media Vocational Training Academy in Burbank, a two-year vocational program that trains students for jobs in the entertainment industry—learning technical skills in animation, filmmaking and television and interpersonal skills.
The diverse advisory board includes some well-known actors, including Joe Mantegna, Adrian Zmed, Zoe Saldana, Bruce Davidson, John Schneider, Susan Olson and Charlene Tilton. Their involvement tends to be hands-on, whether making public service announcements, participating in actors’ workshops or conducting practice vocational interviews.
When it comes to quantifying results, Alisa points to a student named Christina, who was 16 when she first entered the program. “She was a selected mute who was affected from a certain trauma. Her parents thought that acting might help,” she explains. “After a couple months of attending classes, she was on stage and just started singing. No one could believe it. She’s now 23 and continues to participate.”
Cynthia Kawa is what you might call a non-profit “life-er.” When she started working in the field in the mid-70s, she met a young, blind, disabled woman named Lorena. The woman longed to have a real job but instead spent most of her time in a classroom doing practice work. Today Lorena is a proud employee of Pizza Hut, where she has worked for nearly 10 years assembling cardboard pizza boxes.
“Lorena is an enduring inspiration for me, because she and New Horizons believe in real work and that the community can also learn the value that our clients can bring to their businesses,” says Cynthia, CEO of the North Hills non-profit.
What six families started in 1954 has now grown to an organization with 762 developmentally disabled adult clients and 300 staff members. It aims to empower their clients to fulfill their dreams and to give back to the community by engaging in a reciprocal process through work.
New Horizons serves a variety of clients—from the severely disabled, such as Ali, 24, a blind man with autism and cerebral palsy, to Vinay, 30, who is mildly autistic and works as an IRS auditor downtown.
The non-profit has developed work partnerships with more than 50 corporations, including Universal Studios. And 400 clients work either at New Horizons itself or offsite at partnering companies.
“We not only care for people, we empower them to be the best they can be as productive, functioning members of the community,” says Cynthia. “It’s not a place for rehabilitation but rather to increase our clients’ ability to function.”
At the North Hills location, there are programs for skills training and getting jobs in community. Their assembly, packaging and fulfillment service to the business community, for example, garnered $3 million dollars last year. Sam’s Cafe, an onsite eatery for staff and clients as well as an event rental facility, is also a training center. The cafe is known for its fresh-baked cookies that can be shipped anywhere within California.
“New Horizons is a magical, inspiring place. The people we serve give so much back to us and to the community, despite their disabilities,“ expresses Cynthia. “If they strive so hard, how can we not be grateful?”