SPANNER is a one-of-a-kind and caring South Jersey organization that is dedicated to improving the social skills, independence, and community integration of young people with developmental disabilities. SPANNER started 10 years ago when several St. John of God (a school for kids with disabilities in Westville) teachers saw a need for teen socializing with the disabled kids. SPANNER roughly stands for “Special Population Achieving Normalcy through Education and Recreation.” It started out small. Kids between the ages of 13-21 with disabilities were paired with high school students to serve as their mentors. Barbara Stoner, the current programming director, became involved with SPANNER when her own son with disabilities joined the club seven years ago. When the original founders decided to move on, SPANNER was going to fold, so she took over the position of programming director, because she felt that this organization was unique and its impact profound. SPANNER has grown throughout the years, but its mission has stayed the same.
The quality of life for the young people involved in the club has dramatically improved. Their program works through a "membership club" atmosphere, where teens with special needs meet with area high school and college volunteers to form a mentoring bond between the kids. All of the teens and young adults in the group benefit and learn from each other as they work together each week and through daily communications. Their mentors consist of selfless and caring, top students and leaders in high schools and colleges, as well as successful professionals out in the working world. They are dedicated to making a difference in the community. Ms. Stoner writes, “The basis of SPANNER is to provide good role models (high school, college, and young adults) for teens and young adults with disabilities so that they can "span" or bridge the gap between school, home and community. The idea was to make them "socially acceptable" so that they could function more independently out in the community.”
Ms. Stoner writes in a recent email correspondence, “I also realized that once the kids with disabilities turned 21 there was no where else for them to go, so they stayed in the club and it grew to almost 80 members ranging in ages from 13-29.” To accommodate this growing organization she split the club into two separate clubs. Four years ago she divided SPANNER into the Under 21 Club for those kids with disabilities, still in high school or under the age of 21 and the Over 21 Club for those either graduated from high school or over the age of 21.
The Under 21 Club meets weekly and has about 50 members. The volunteer mentors come from about a dozen different area high schools, plus six different colleges. The Over 21 club meets three times a month and all the volunteer mentors are in their twenties, and are either attending college or are some sort of professional. Since this club is so unique, the members come from Burlington, Gloucester, Camden, and Atlantic counties and travel a great distance to meet. The organization is based out of their “clubhouse,” which is a meeting room in the United Methodist Church in Gibbsboro. It is located near Paint Works and the Chop House.
For the 2004-2005 year, SPANNER has the theme of “SPANNER’s All Stars.” This theme is based on creating challenges to motivate and increase the independence level of all its members. To help accomplish this, appropriate communication skills, as well as other life skills, will be stressed through various challenges. SPANNER helps by giving each member a sense of independence, which ultimately affects his or her self-confidence and quality of life in a positive way. Over the course of this year, activities are geared to increase independence through role-playing and games first. Then these skills are applied when they are in the community. The start of the year concentrated on getting to know each other by name, and also by team. As the year progressed, each club was faced with challenges to address target skills needing improvement. By participating in the scheduled events each month all members have the opportunity to increase their independence level, polish their social skills, and learn to handle communicating in all types of situations. Following the theme of increasing the independence level of all its members, the mentors are given strategies to use to focus on appropriate social skills and communication skills for each member. The Friday night activities are organized with a specific objective for that night, a plan of action. Then, during the week, contact through email is used to reinforce what was covered. The Saturday activities are a time to apply new learned strategies for appropriate behavior using life skills. Saturdays are spent out and about allowing each member to participate in a variety of activities within the community.
So you want to get involved and be a volunteer or know someone who benefit from being part of this organization? Their volunteers are selfless young adults who willingly give up their Friday nights and Saturday afternoons to spend time with the young adults who they mentor. It takes a unique young person to be this caring, patient, and understanding. The young adults with disabilities in this organization would have little to no social life without these volunteers. Volunteers not only serve as mentors but also as friends. These volunteers are the people the members of SPANNER email, talk to, go bowling and to the movies with, and participate in many other great activities. The main ingredient needed to be a volunteer is the willingness to sacrifice personal plans in order to allow time to be a part of SPANNER. The young adults with disabilities look to the volunteers as role models. They want to act like them, so that they are accepted, not only in the SPANNER group, but the community as well.
SPANNER participants are made up of teens with a variety of disabilities from many surrounding schools. They range in age from 13-21 in the Under 21 Club and 21 and up in the Over 21 Club. All of the members are capable of functioning out and about with supervision. SPANNER members are unique in that they are honest, friendly, and willing to go out of their way to be with each other. Being surrounded by great role models helps develop these traits in their participants. If you know someone who would like to be involved in this organization you can contact Barbara Stoner at email@example.com.
SPANNER is a non-profit organization that relies on private donations and grants as well as fundraisers to exist. They run two fundraisers a year, with one coming up on April 22nd. They will be sponsoring an Art Auction at Shannon Caterers on the White Horse Pike in Atco. Be sure to mark this date on your calendar and come support a local organization. SPANNER makes sure to let everyone that is involved in the organization know how much they appreciated. They always end their year with a big “Night of Thanks” dinner and show at Evans School in Marlton. The kids in both clubs perform, scholarships are awarded to the high school volunteers, and their honored guests are all the parents, organizations, businesses, and private citizens who have contributed to SPANNER over the year.
You can see the positive outcomes of this organization by the smiles on everyone’s faces. This is a truly great organization where everyone can learn something valuable. Everyone involved is very caring and Ms. Stoner writes, “SPANNER is in my heart.” All activities that are planned for both groups are listed on the website. You can call their hotline at (609) 567-6215 to find out what the groups will be doing. For more information on SPANNER, visit their website at www.myspanner.com.