June 7, 2017

Many Programs for Special Needs Challenges Are Available in the Area for Children and Adults

BEST FRIENDS: This 13-year-old young rider, shown with his equine companion, Secret Agent, has made remarkable progress in the Unicorn Therapeutic Riding program in Pennington. “Our students have a wide variety of capabilities, and the benefits of the program are many, ranging from increased muscle strength and range of motion to improved self-esteem and confidence,” said Founder and Director Erin Hurley.

For individuals facing a disability or special needs, each day brings challenges that are ever-present. Whether the person is a child or adult, whether the challenges are physical, intellectual, or emotional, each individual must persevere to enjoy a quality of life and sense of independence that so many of us take for granted.

Fortunately, many programs are available to provide support, disseminate information, and direction to resources. Local agencies, federal and state governments, schools, YMCA/YWCA, community recreation programs, and camps are all ready to help special needs individuals to develop skills, participate to the best of their ability, and to feel included as an important member of the team or activity group.

Such programs are increasingly offered in schools, including the Bridge Academy in Lawrenceville. An independent nonprofit school, it enrolls students ages 8 to 18 with language-based difficulties, such as dyslexia, auditory processing disorder, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder), and dysgraphia. The Bridge Academy is designed to help students “‘bridge the gap’ between their potential and performance,” explains Development Director Kim Bruno.

“The school is well-known and respected for its unique ability to remediate student weaknesses, encourage independent learning strategies, and help maximize potential. Students are best described as ‘bright students who learn differently.’ These students are of average to above-average intelligence but thrive and learn best in more accommodating educational settings. The school’s educational expertise attracts students from more than 32 different school districts in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.”


Ms. Bruno points out that the Orton-Gillingham method is the foundation of the language arts program. Small group instruction, with a 3 to 1 student-staff ratio, is an important focus, she adds. “Multi-sensory teaching techniques are employed to address individual learning styles while a supportive and nurturing environment fosters each student’s academic and social growth

“Orton-Gillingham instructional approach has proved to be highly successful for students with dyslexia and other language-based learning disabilities. The Bridge Academy is one of only 13 schools in the nation (and the only one in New Jersey) that is accredited by the Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators.”

A comprehensive curriculum includes language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, art, physical education/health, career orientation, speech, counseling, and occupational therapy. Technology is fully utilized at the school with the use of student laptop and classroom interactive Smart Boards.

“Opportunities for student involvement in non-academic and extra-curricular services and activities are encouraged, and provided through periodic school-sponsored events as well as student participation in sports and events sponsored at and by the sending districts,” continues Ms. Bruno. “Also, as the schedule allows, students aged 14 and older are enrolled in Career Orientations, designed to explore school to post-school activities, including vocational training, career exploration, and entry into community or four-year colleges. This
program has been highly effective, with 87 percent of the students pursuing a college education.”

As Ms, Bruno points out, a hallmark of the Bridge Academy is “the commitment, collegiality, and depth of knowledge of the staff and faculty, The teachers consistently show sensitivity and understanding to students as they learn together.

“They celebrate each child’s talents, successes, and build upon a strong community including students, parents, family members, child study team members, and professionals. The Bridge Academy is a student-centered, academically challenging school with clear expectations and learning foundations.”

Sports Programs

In addition to the regular school program five days a week from September to June, after-school and summer tutoring, a summer remedial reading program, and summer teacher training in Orton-Gillingham multi-sensory are also offered.

Sports programs have always been a way to emphasize the value of teamwork and the necessary contribution of each individual, and good sportsmanship. Often, however, those with special needs and disabilities have been left out of such activities.

With the advent of Special Olympics and various school and community programs, now children and adults with these challenges are welcome to participate.

Such a program is Princeton Special Spots (PSS), an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization which provides sports for special needs children 6 and up, and social programs for special needs adults and teens. Founded in 2001 as the Challenger Division of Princeton Little League, offering youth baseball to children with special needs, it added basketball in 2003, and reorganized as an independent nonprofit entity. Soccer was added in 2004, and the program now offers youth sports three seasons during the year.

“PSS began partnering with the Princeton Recreation Department (PRD) in 2008 to offer monthly dances for adults and teens,” explains Co-Founder and Co-President Deborah Martin- Norcross. “The dances now draw more than 70 participants each month, and some have lived in our community for years, The dances culminate with a Spring Formal in May, and a pool party and barbecue at the Community Park Pool in June.

“In addition to these regular programs, PSS and PRD occasionally run other activities, which have included an international pot luck dinner and two Arts Showcases, the second of which is also supported by the Arts Council of Princeton. In these showcases, adults and teens with special needs were able to display their talents in the visual and performing arts.”


“Our programs are run by adult volunteers with the assistance of more than 75 student volunteers or ‘buddies’,” continues Ms. Martin-Norcross. “These extraordinary college, high school, and middle school students interact one-on-one with our participants in all of our programs, providing peer leadership and social camaraderie no coach or chaperone can replicate.

The participants have a range of special needs and challenges, she adds. “Some have physical disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, mobility, sight, hearing, or speaking impairments. Others have cognitive or attention-related issues, including autism, Down syndrome, developmental delays, ADHD, Williams syndrome, Kabuki syndrome, Angelman syndrome, and other conditions.”

Participants must be at least 6 years old to play in the youth sports programs, and most players continue to be involved through their 20s. The dances for adults and teens include teen-aged participants to those in their mid-60s, reports Ms. Martin-Norcross.

Basketball is played in winter, baseball in spring, and soccer in the fall. Each season is 10 weeks, with sessions on Sundays from noon to 1:30 p.m. at various locations. Dances are held one Friday a month from September through June.

Ms. Martin-Norcross believes the benefits of PSS cover many areas. As she points out, ”In our youth sports programs, in addition to teaching the skills required for each sport, we focus on providing our players with a place where they can succeed, take pride in their individual accomplishments, understand the importance of teamwork, and especially, good sportsmanship, and generally derive the same benefits of being part of a team that typical kids enjoy,”

Also, she adds, “As people with special needs age out of the school system, there are fewer opportunities for them to socialize. The dances are one way we try to fill that gap. We provide supported settings for social interaction that are not otherwise readily available to the adults with special needs living in the Princeton area. We are told that even participants who don’t love dancing look forward to coming every month, if only to listen to music and share a pizza with their friends, PSS and PRD plan to continue working to open up more of these opportunities for this segment of our community,”

Important Benefits

In addition to Ms Martin-Norcross, officers of the PSS board include Co-President John Pecora, Vice President Ann Diver, Treasurer Carmine Conti, and Secretary Hana Oresky.

Yoga has long been known as a unique path to relaxation as well as an excellent form of exercise. It can also offer important benefits for children and adults with special needs.

Be Inspired Yoga in Pennington, founded by Fran Swart, a yoga therapist, offers a full range of yoga opportunities. Ms. Swart works with people of all ages and specializes with children and families with special needs. Her mission is to help them feel better and enjoy a better quality of life.

“With yoga therapy, I am often able to help people who haven’t gotten lasting results from anything else they’ve tried,” she explains. “One of the biggest benefits clients get from working with me is being with someone who doesn’t judge and doesn’t just see a body or behavior that needs to be fixed, Instead, I see a person who has many strengths and gifts, with some challenges, from mild to severe, that get in the way of their living the fullest life possible.

“I use yoga therapy to work with individuals and families who deal with a wide range of challenges, strengths, and special needs. These can include autism, ADHD, learning delays, Down syndrome, cancer, anxiety, depression, deficits in receptive and expressive language, and physical challenges associated with special needs, as well as those arising from chronic pain or injury.

“Working together with families and children, we build on strengths to achieve consistent, positive, and
noticeable results in the following areas: balance, coordination, trying new things, paying attention, communicating, taking interest in other people, motor planning, emotional outbursts, impulsive behavior, sleep issues, anxiety, depression, chronic stress, chronic pain or injuries, migraine headaches, body awareness, and improved reading and writing skills.”

Yoga therapy uses simple movements and breathing exercises to improve movement and breathing, points out Ms, Swart. “Consciously moving and breathing with deliberate attention are forms of mindfulness meditation. These meditation practices increase self-awareness and help you identify and take steps toward a happier life. Regardless of your personal challenges or circumstances, life-changing shifts are possible for everyone, and anyone can do it and immediately enjoy the benefits.”

At Ease

Private yoga therapy sessions are one hour, and focus on the individual’s needs and goals. Ms. Swart also provides home yoga therapy programs for every client. “Practicing at home helps integrate what you’re learning into your everyday life. You will quickly develop the skills you need to feel better, happier, and more at ease. No matter what reason brings you to yoga therapy, you will feel better, and be empowered to shape the direction your life is taking,”

Be Inspired Yoga’s many clients are enthusiastic about its customized program. As the teacher of an autistic student reports, “Fran is mindful of his abilities, and adjusts her teaching style and instruction based on his strengths and challenges. He continues to make progress in developing his body awareness, range of motion, balance, coordination, strength, and concentration.”

Adds the mother of a child with special needs, “Fran’s unfailingly patient and encouraging attitude makes space for carefully tuning in to what is really going on.”

Healing Process

Many individuals facing the challenges of special needs have established a significant bond with horses. This is true for children and adults, and riding has benefitted them in various ways, including physically and emotionally.

Unicorn Therapeutic Riding in Pennington offers a full range of equine-related opportunities — from riding to caring for the horse.

“Our mission is to facilitate growth and rehabilitation through the connection to horses. Horses are powerful animals in the healing process and can instill confidence in students, whether through riding or just equine interaction,” points out Erin Hurley, Unicorn founder and director.

A registered/licensed occupational therapist, Ms. Hurley began riding as a young girl, and has conducted therapeutic riding in New Jersey since 1988. She opened Unicorn Therapeutic Riding, relocating to Pennington, in September 2016.

“We are a nonprofit program dedicated to enhancing the lives of children and adults with special needs,” she explains. “Set on over 18 acres, our brand-new facility includes a fully-enclosed indoor riding arena with viewing area, seven-stall barn with tack room and wash stall.”

Special needs students from 3 years old to 20-plus come to Unicorn where they can bond with the horses and learn a variety of riding skills.

“Unicorn Therapeutic Riding is a program for children and adults to gain physical and cognitive strength through riding and interacting with horses. Through the assistance of trained professionals, students will have personalized sessions with one of our therapeutic riding horses,” says Ms. Hurley.

Horseback riding and equine interaction have been shown to help students in many areas, she adds. “The benefits are many, ranging from improving muscle strength, balance, coordination, focus, and range of motion to strengthening the core, promoting positive sensory stimulation, enhancing social skills, and increasing confidence and self-esteem — all combined wth a sense of control and having fun.”

Tried and True

“We have horses that are tried and true and suitable to our needs,” continues Ms. Hurley. “They have been specially trained as therapeutic horses, and experienced working with individuals with special needs. They don’t mind loud noises or unexpected behavior. Our horses are very forgiving. With Unicorn Therapeutic Riding, the horse becomes the partner for treatment.”

Classes are 30 or 45 minutes, depending on the student. In some cases, students ride alone, under the supervision of Ms Hurley or one of the other instructors. For very young children, a leader walks in front the horse, with two other helpers, one on each side of the horse.

Ms. Hurley notes that although some children are initially apprehensive, they soon bond with the horse and look forward to the next ride. She adds that the program can benefit many disabilities. Some of these include abuse issues, ADHD, anxiety, autism, cerebral palsy, dementia, depression, development delay, genetic syndromes, traumatic brain injuries, behavioral issues, physical injuries, and post traumatic stress disorder,

Riders of all ages and abilities are welcome. As Ms, Hurley says, “No previous riding experience is required, We will customize a program to meet individual student needs, and smaller and larger horses are available. Riding occurs year-round in our indoor arena.”

In addition to riding, some of the students learn to saddle the horse, brush, groom, and feed the animal. “We want our students to develop confidence and become as independent as possible,” points out Ms. Hurley. “Horses are amazing animals, and our wonderful staff and volunteers promote success for our students in learning a new skill.”

A special pleasure currently awaits students and visitors to Unicorn. The group of six horses has been joined by the arrival of a three-month-old colt, born in March to one of the regular stable occupants, Sugar Magnolia. The playful and charming newcomer will eventually be trained to take his place as a therapeutic horse.

School Project

Everyone can use a sidekick! Someone you can count on, someone to take your part, someone to trust; a mentor, a best friend.

That is the premise underlying Sidekicks Support Services. This Hamilton-based organization was founded by Niko Antonellos in 2012 when he was a senior in college. As he explains, “It started out as a school project for my entrepreneurship class, and I have been working on SideKicks ever since.”

Over the years, it has become indispensable to many families with special needs members. Primarily serving Mercer County, it also helps people in Ocean, Monmouth, and Middlesex counties.

“Sidekicks was started to give individuals with disabilities the opportunity to attain meaningful relationships and to get the chance to be part of a community. I also started it because I wanted to give families time, comfort, and peace of mind by providing a reliable support outlet,” says Mr. Antonellos.

“Social networks and social interaction are key elements of happiness, wealth, and prosperity. By providing mentors and companions, we envision individuals having the opportunity to enjoy daily activities and community offerings, We envision parents having extra support around the home or when needing to tend to personal and professional needs.

“We provide Medicaid- and insurance-funded programs, such as individual support services, employment support, career planning, and community-based supports. Sidekicks is an approved provider through the Division of Developmental Disabilities, Department of Children and Families, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Aetna.”

Daily Living

Among the services offered by Sidekicks are mentorship, companionship, assistance with daily living, engaging in activities in the home or in the community, and respite,

“We do a lot of things with our individuals,” reports Mr. Antonellos. “Whether it’s working on activities of daily living, self care, going out into the community, going to events, and participating in games and activities, etc. We work with individuals from four years old and up, and provide services for people with conditions such as autism, spectrum disorder, Down Syndrome, physical handicaps, behavior disorders, anxiety, and ADHD, among other challenges.

“Our services ate provided in the homes of the family and in the community, Our sessions are typically anywhere from two to five hours at a time, but we also have Sidekicks who work for longer periods of time or for the day. In addition, we also do overnight stays.”

The Sidekicks staff includes 75 part-time and three full-time members, adds Mr. Antonellos. All are pre-screened and receive special training. In addition, six board-certified behavior analysts work with the Sidekicks.

“Everyone’s needs, interests, and goals are different,” he points out. “Our services are tailored to fit each individual’s unique ambitions. The goal of our program is to promote personal growth and development, and an experience that is safe, engaging, and fulfilling.”

Those who interact with and help special needs individuals are noted for their patience, compassion, and concern for others.

As Mr. Antonellos says, “I believe individuals with disabilities are superheroes for overcoming obstacles and challenges on a daily basis, They truly are an inspiration to me, and are a daily reminder that the relationships we have with others are a major key to happiness. I just want to give people an opportunity for that happiness through meaningful relationships.”