Teens and Adults with Intellectual Disabilities Don’t Need to be Socially Isolated

By Sandra McElwee, Rancho Santa Margarita, CA

With no social activities on the calendar and a long summer looming ahead, an idea was hatched. Dreading the inevitable boredom, 16 teens and their parents banded together to create something new — Cool Club. The Cool Club’s mission is to provide a safe, fun environment where members are encouraged to develop trusting friendships, learn appropriate social and communication skills and promote tolerance and patience between members and their families.

One year later, Cool Club is a great success.

How it works

The concept is pretty simple. Most teenagers like to socialize with friends, and teens with intellectual disabilities (ID) are no different. But teens with ID may have less opportunity to hang out with peers without some assistance in planning and executing social gatherings. With Cool Club, families take one weekend to plan an evening activity for a group of teens. Being responsible for one weekend means 15 more weeks of fun planned by other parents. Even the busiest parents could muster up three times a year! So, two moms quickly set up a calendar and each family picked a weekend to host the group. The moms also put together some rules about communication, supervision and basic requirements that all families agreed to follow.

Since it was summer, there were a lot of pool parties. Bowling was a hit, too. We quickly learned our group didn’t like to sit quietly and watch a movie at the theater. They want to socialize with each other, laugh loudly and high five each other without disturbing other movie goers. So, a movie in someone’s home is better. Our teens like to do anything that other teens do — play miniature golf, hang out at the mall, eat at Benihana’s or other restaurants with an entertaining theme, and watch plays and sporting events!

Each week, the host family emails all Club members with the day and date of the event (Friday or Saturday); location, including address and pertinent phone number; time to arrive and pick up; what the event will entail (bowling, party, swimming, etc.); and any special instructions, such as amount of money needed, food for potlucks, etc. There must be a minimum of one man and one woman at every event, so the single moms and dads request another parent to help when it’s their turn to host.

While their teens are at Cool Club, parents enjoy date nights or just have weekend time alone. This isn’t a “babysitting” co-op, however. Parents can’t leave siblings to potentially double the number of teens. The hosts, though, can have all of their other children there to help out. If a planned activity needs additional supervision, that information is included in the email and another set of parents volunteer to help.

The format has been very manageable. Out of 16 teens, attendance averages eight to 10 per activity. Attendance is not required at every activity and several members have single parents and are not available every weekend.

Our teens attend five different high schools. Many have participated on the same sports teams since they were children and some know each other from school. Several have a common friend in the group, but most are new friends. None had frequent social opportunities before Cool Club was founded and new friendships have bloomed.

All are welcome

We do not tolerate intolerance. Every teen in Cool Club has had an issue at some point in their lives. To accept everybody, no matter what, is what we look for in our communities, so we want to be the models of that acceptance. Everybody deserves the opportunity to have friends and fun, so everyone is welcome and accepted. We have a few members with behavioral issues, such as running off or hitting. Parents know if their teen fits that description. If so, the teen is welcome to come with a parent in attendance. One young woman used to need her parent’s presence. But now that she knows what is expected of her, she rises to the occasion and is able to come solo. She is awesome!

What is the hardest part of Cool Club? Well, the original group had a couple of unreliable parents. When it was their week to host, they dropped their teens out of the group in lieu of hosting. All of the teens were bummed to have a weekend with nothing planned for them to do. For the rest of the parents, it was a reminder of what life was like before Cool Club. We are more dedicated than ever to continue!

Building on success

It’s time for some new Cool Clubs to form. As other parents have found out about our Cool Club they’ve begged to have their teens join. We are committed to keeping the group size manageable, so we’re helping other parents start their own Cool Clubs.

The most difficult part of forming a new Cool Club is finding potential members who are interested in social activities. While everyone knows at least one other person with a disability, word of mouth only works to a certain extent. To find a larger group of prospective members, I approached a local organization that serves clients with a range of disabilities, which allowed me to do a Cool Club presentation to clients and families. They advertised the event through email blasts forwarded throughout the county. I shared how our Club started and then I had people split into groups by age — high school, transition-age and adult —and more Cool Clubs were formed! Ask your local DS Association, school district’s special education department, transition programs, Parent to Parent or other organizations who serve clients with ID to help spread the word, too.

Because adults with ID also need social opportunities, I plan on starting some adult groups. I’d suggest limiting the group to about 12, since adults may have fewer social opportunities than teens and will attend every week.

It’s been almost a year now and I’ve planned three (manageable) events. My son hates to miss a Cool Club activity and every Friday his questions start — When is Cool Club? Who is doing it? What are we doing? Parents find the teens are starting to plan (okay, dictate) their own activities and now our job is to follow through with the details!

Editor’s note: Sandra McElwee was the originator and administrator of Cool Club and feels a responsibility to the community of teens and adults with ID so that they all can be part of a Cool Club. McElwee will present a workshop at the NDSC Convention in Orlando on how to start a Cool Club in your area. Contact her at coolclub@cox.net.