Keeping the connection: Day programs offer online support for children, young adults with disabilities 

  • Max Callahan works on his art work at his home in Pelham, Tuesday, May 12, 2020. He is taking five online classes through the Whole Children program. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Max Callahan pauses from his art work at his home in Pelham, Tuesday, May 12, 2020. He is taking five online classes through the Whole Children program. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Max Callahan pauses from his art work at his home in Pelham, Tuesday, May 12, 2020. He is taking five online classes through the Whole Children program. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Max Callahan with his mother, Andrea, at their home in Pelham, Tuesday, May 12, 2020. He is taking five online classes through the Whole Children program. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Max Callahan pauses from his artwork at his home in Pelham, May 12. He is taking five online classes through the Whole Children program. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Caregiver Abigail Moller assists Jacqueline Boucher, 18, as she takes part in a “Music Mash” online class through the Milestones program at the home they share in South Hadley on Friday, May 8, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Caregiver Abigail Moller, left, assists Jacqueline Boucher, who has Down syndrome and a speech disorder, as she takes part in a “Music Mash” online class through the Milestones program at their home in South Hadley, May 8. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Caregiver Abigail Moller assists Jacqueline Boucher, 18, as she takes part in an online class through the Milestones program at the home they share in South Hadley on Friday, May 8, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jacqueline Boucher, who goes by “Jac,” uses a symbol-supported communication app called Proloquo to take part in an online class through from her home in South Hadley on Friday, May 8, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Caregiver Abigail Moller, left, assists Jacqueline Boucher, who has Down syndrome and a speech disorder, as she takes part in a “Music Mash” online class through the Milestones program at their home in South Hadley on Friday, May 8, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Caregiver Abigail Moller, left, is ready to assist as Jacqueline Boucher uses a symbol-supported communication app called Proloquo to take part in a “Music Mash” online class through the Milestones program at her home in South Hadley on Friday, May 8, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jacqueline Boucher, who goes by “Jac,” takes part in a “Music Mash” online class through the Milestones program from her home in South Hadley on Friday, May 8, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Linda LaPointe of South Hadley checks in with her daughter, Jacqueline Boucher, 18, at the South Hadley home Jac shares with caregiver Abigail Moller, on Friday, May 8, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Linda LaPointe of South Hadley visits her daughter, Jacqueline Boucher, 18, at the South Hadley home Jac shares with caregiver Abigail Moller, on Friday, May 8, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Caregiver Abigail Moller, left, is ready to assist as Jacqueline Boucher, who has Down syndrome and a speech disorder, uses a symbol-supported communication app called Proloquo to take part in a “Music Mash” online class through the Milestones program at her home in South Hadley on Friday, May 8, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Caregiver Abigail Moller logs in on a separate device, ready to provide assistance to Jacqueline Boucher as she takes an online class through the Milestones program. Jac waved her off, indicating she didn’t need help at the moment. Photographed at the home they share in South Hadley on Friday, May 8, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer 
Published: 5/20/2020 11:14:50 AM

Max Callahan, a 20-year-old Pelham resident with autism, has a busier social life now than he had before the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s taking five online classes that are all free through Hadley-based Whole Children, which provides recreational, social and enrichment programs designed for children and young adults with disabilities. 

Callahan said he’s taking classes in self-advocacy, Japanese anime, art and video games, as well as taking part in a multiplayer video game party once a week. He has been involved with Whole Children since 2018. 

“The self-advocacy class has helped me feel better,” Callahan said. “I’m a little bit shy about self-advocacy, so taking this class helps me get better about it each day and feel more confident and stand up for myself.”

Andrea Callahan, Max’s mother, said that when they started social distancing in March, her son’s calendar was looking empty. But once Whole Children announced that it was offering free online classes, his weekly schedule filled up with activities. 

“For our family, that made the difference,” Andrea Callahan said. “He wakes up every morning, takes a shower, eats his breakfast, looks at the calendar and jumps on to a fun meet. He’s busier now than he was before the quarantine as far as social opportunities go. I am so grateful. It changed everything for us.” 

Max Callahan attends Amherst-Pelham Regional High School. Under Massachusetts law Chapter 688 (also known as the Turning 22 law), young adults with severe disabilities can continue to attend high school until 22 years old “as they leave special education and transition into the adult service system,” according to the website of the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services.

Callahan said he finds Whole Children accepting and that it has been “nothing but a good experience for me.” 

He added, “I’ve made several good friends. The staff there are really helpful if you are dealing with a hard situation.” 

Callahan said he also has been supportive to a new friend he made online who needed someone to talk to about the difficulties that friend was having with social distancing. 

“I remember he said, ‘I need someone to talk to because it’s really hard during quarantine,’” Max said. 

The participants involved with Whole Children have created a support system for one another during the pandemic, said Andrea Callahan.

“Now, when they feel depressed during this quarantine, or lonely or sick of their family, they’re starting to call one another,” she added. “That’s really the beauty of it.” 

‘Something clicked’

Julie Hooks is the associate director of Whole Children and Milestones Recreation, a community-based day program for adults with disabilities. Both programs are part of the locally based Pathlight Group, which serves people of all ages with disabilities. 

There weren’t many roadblocks switching to online classes and programs back in March at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hooks said.

“I have to say, our teachers didn’t really miss a beat in making the change,” Hooks said. “They didn’t need to take any time to wrap their heads around the idea that we had to keep serving our students and participants. It was just a matter of mastering the technology. We use mostly Zoom and Discord [video-chat programs] for our online classes.” 

What’s impressed Hooks the most is how easily students have adapted to taking online classes. 

“For a lot of them, they’re very into computers and technologically savvy,” she noted. “Many of them have been able to make the adjustment and figure out how Zoom works while needing some support sometimes.” 

Hooks said for participants who are used to attending classes at physical locations, creating an online community through the free classes has been challenging, especially with participants who don’t have easy access to technology. 

“A handful of our students don’t have the devices that they need to participate,” she said, adding that one student wanted to join in a group chat about a popular life-simulation video game called “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” but didn’t have the Nintendo Switch gaming console to participate. 

“Whole Children is a program of Pathlight, so one of our sister organizations, Family Empowerment, was able to find funding to buy a device and a game for this kid,” Hooks said. “One of our teachers had to drive to Chicopee and Springfield and got this game and delivered it to the house of this student so that they could participate in the class.”  

Jacqueline “Jac” Boucher is 18 years old and has Down syndrome as well as a speech disorder called verbal apraxia. She attends South Hadley High School and lives in an apartment in South Hadley with her caretaker, Abigail Moller, while Boucher’s mother, Linda LaPointe, lives a few miles away in Granby. 

LaPointe said her daughter started attending the Milestones Recreation day program in the morning and Whole Children classes in the afternoon last year. Boucher is currently taking remote online classes through Whole Children and Milestones from Monday through Friday. 

“When she started going to Milestones, which was last summer, something clicked for her,” LaPointe said. “She finally felt completely accepted. There were other young adults who weren’t understood the first time they said something and needed support. That gave her all the confidence that she needed.” 

Boucher said Milestones is a place where she has made friends and there’s always “a lot going on.” 

The most difficult challenge for Boucher was being quarantined from her mother for two weeks after LaPointe came into contact with someone who was diagnosed with COVID-19. 

“We did a lot of FaceTime,” Moller, her caretaker, said. “And she dealt with it. She missed her. She’s missing people, for sure.” 

Boucher is involved with storytelling, a “Music Mash” class identifying musical instruments, songwriting, self-advocacy, art and science classes, as well as a women’s group for young adults 18 years or older that focuses on health, relationships and any other topic related to being a woman, Moller said. Boucher also takes part in a Milestones online meetup group. 

Andrea Callahan noted the pandemic has been difficult for young adults with disabilities who are just “launching their independence.” A year ago, her son, Max, might have looked forward to taking the bus to a school dance, for instance.

“They were taking transportation on their own to go to the dance on Friday night. And that was lost … But because of the classes, they can go off and be independent,” she said. “That’s really the hardest part for this population of young adults with disabilities. This was the very age where they were starting to go to the dance without parents.” 

Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@gazettenet.com. To learn more about Pathlight Group, Whole Children and Milestones Recreation visit https://pathlightgroup.org.


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