CMU students creating connections with mid-Michigan students with disabilities

The word community can define a lot of different groups. In one case, it defines a small Central Michigan University group known as Connections that Count.

Connections has been creating a community for mid-Michigan students with special needs, and their families, since 2002.

The program that has created its own local community. Students from around the mid-Michigan area meet once a week on CMU’s campus. In all, around seventy K-12 students participate.

The kids spend time with CMU students. They go swimming, bowling, rock climbing…

It’s completely free to the families. And it’s appreciated… “It’s a win, win situation” said Doug Struble.

Struble’s daughter Anna has been in Connections for two years.

“The community gets involved, they sponsor the dinners. And then the university, it’s an outlet for them and their students to learn and interact with work with special needs students. The parents do as well. I mean it’s a little social outlet for the parents” said Struble.

…A social outlet for the parents and, for their children, it’s a safe place to improve social skills.

“They get to build on those different social interactions and social cues, and they just grow as a person.” Hannah Townsend is a CMU student. She’s volunteered with the program for three years. She echoes what we heared from parents; Connections gives students with special needs a safe place to, well… connect.

Alicia Bellmore’s daughter, Morgan, has hypoplasia of the corpus colosum- it affects her neural connection and communication. Alicia says Morgan has been attending Connections for 3-years.

“It’s helped her socially, I think, she has friends from school that come, she’s excited to see them every week. I think she is more confident” says Bellmore.

One of the students’ favorite parts of the program is also one of its most quiet.

Her name is Norah Francis. And she’s a-year old Cavalier King Charles spaniel.

She is in training to be a therapy dog, but she already seems to know how to interact with the community kids. Joan Hogan is her owner.IMG_1971

“I had one boy he came up to me, and Nora was sitting kind of close on the floor. He said to me, ‘you want to know something Mrs. Joan? She never judges me.’ I said you’re right, she’ll never do it” said Hogan.

Joan is the 5 foot and 4 inches tall, 72 year old power house behind Connections that Count. She launched the program 16-years ago with no budget and a lot of passion.

“I love this. The community, I am very involved with the community. I love Mount Pleasant, I love CMU. When you love something, it makes it easier do those things” said Hogan.

She says Connections still has no official budget. It runs on community donations. But in the last three years, program growth has exploded. Attendance is at capacity.
And Joan is still looking for ways to help more students.

This fall for the first time, CMU will offer class credit and a certificate for CMU students who participate in Connections the Count. The details are still being worked out.IMG_1972

But the benefits of this program have been demonstrated, year after year. For students like seven-year old Nolan. His mom drives him 40-minutes just to be part of Connections. And for CMU students, who want to better understand students with special needs who have a different view on life.

This is Nolan’s mom, Becky… “It really gives them a true aspect of what this is. So if they are getting involved in special education, I think that it would a direct comparison of what they might be dealing with in a classroom.”

Connections that Count has been offering a safe haven for students with special needs, their families, CMU students and teachers for over a decade…with no end in sight.