Connect Us, a Metro-Area Nonprofit Funded in Part by the Denver Mill Levy, Is Dedicated to the Social and Emotional Well-Being of Children
The sun is shining on the green grass and a group of school-aged children are clustered around a volleyball net. One team serves and a water balloon sails through the air, exploding on a now drenched opposing team, causing a second explosion of laughter and cheers. This was the scene on water day this summer at a camp hosted by Connect Us, a metro-area nonprofit.
This scene may sound like a typical summer camp, but there is something different at play here. Children who are typically developing and children with disabilities are having fun together. That’s the cornerstone of the Connect Us model and what makes the organization unique. Connect Us is dedicated to connecting kids through the power of play.
“We all want to be connected,” said Stephanie Schiff, founder and executive director of Connect Us. “We have an innate desire to make friends and develop positive relationships. Connect Us is harnessing the power of play to support children to be empowered and have the tools necessary to be self-confident, resilient and feel successful with their peers.”
Connect Us was founded in 2009 by Schiff whose 5-year-old son was struggling socially. She observed the hurdles her son faced on the playground and dedicated herself to creating a safe environment for children to play and form social bonds. The pilot program she introduced was a weekly summer camp.
Today, Connect Us does much more, including recess facilitation and after-school groups, but the mission has remained the same – to develop the skills in young children necessary to becoming socially competent, self-confident and resilient individuals through physical, creative and collaborative play in a guided learning environment. The programs are structured using the Social Aptitude Inclusive Play model, which targets cooperation, collaboration, negotiation and leadership while kids are engaged in inclusive group play.
This summer, 89 campers and more than a dozen staff and volunteer facilitators marked the 10th anniversary of the Connect Us summer camp. The campers are a diverse group of kids, some who participate in the recess facilitation or after-school programs and some who are in search of a fun summer activity.
Because the camp is physically located in Greenwood Village, the attendees are primarily Arapahoe County residents. This year, Connect Us was able to reach significantly more children in Denver, thanks to mill levy funding through Rocky Mountain Human Services to support camp attendance. Connect Us used the funding to provide 12 children with disabilities in Denver with scholarships to attend the camp.
The camp is divided into five groups who focus on different skills and social growth through guided, imaginative, collaborative and FUN activities.
Connect the Tots (pre-kindergarten) – Exploring social interaction through structured, interactive activities involving music, dance, “snack chat” and pretend play. The curriculum fosters turn-taking, cooperation, communication, listening and shared enjoyment.
Shooting Stars (kindergarten) – Curriculum is all about teamwork and friendly competition. Activities involve group discussions and problem-solving, open communication, flexibility, encouraging others, asserting own views and learning from other points of view.
Grow with the Flow (grades two and \three) – Curriculum is all about teamwork and friendly competition. Activities involve group discussions and problem-solving, open communication, flexibility, encouraging others, asserting own views and learning from other points of view.
Lofty Leaders (grades four and five) – Curriculum is all about teamwork and friendly competition with an extra focus on self-advocating. The group is challenged to lead activities, as well as take direction from their peers.
Teen Group – Preteens and teens build camaraderie and connections with their peers as they engage in extremely fun activities that require group problem-solving, imagination and perspective-taking. They practice decoding verbal and non-verbal communication and have a daily discussion on typical teen issues such as handling peer conflict, stress, bullying and friendship. They have opportunities to be peer leaders and mentors for our younger groups.
All the groups spend the three weeks rotating through different facilitator teams and activities, which include friendship circles; arts and crafts; physical play and sports; science, cooking and sensory activities; music, drama and imaginative play; and outdoor adventures and water play.
A small army of staff and volunteers plan and run the camp each year. Many were junior facilitators who are middle and high school students who started as campers, grew into leaders and are in training to become facilitators. Facilitators return for the fun and rewarding experience year after year, creating bonds of friendship that add another layer of connection for campers and facilitators alike. For many of the young adults who are involved, the experience can be life-changing and helps guide them into a career in special education or social work.
For the past six years, the summer camp has taken place at a church in Greenwood Village. Next summer, the church will be under construction, so Connect Us will need a new location, preferably in southeast Denver to serve children from Arapahoe and Denver counties. If you have any suggestions regarding possible locations, please contact the Connect Us staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.