Darien YMCA launches new program for special needs youth

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox

Eighteen-year-old Sarah Dorris gets to prepare snacks for children in the after-school program at the Darien YMCA.

“I love making snacks with Noel (Senna),” Sarah said. “I get Y bucks to earn time on my phone.”

Sarah is enrolled in Innovative Vocations, a brand-new program that started at the Darien YMCA this fall.

Innovative Vocations was created for special needs young adults who have aged out of the after-school program the YMCA offers for special needs children.

The program, which is open to young people ages 13 to 21, is open Monday to Friday from 3 to 6:30 p.m. It will be an ongoing program.

Its goal is to give young people with special needs the opportunity to be helpful by engaging them in an assortment of job tasks tailored to their individual abilities.

Tasks include preparing, serving and delivering snacks for the after-school program. Snacks include as turkey roll-ups and cheese and crackers.  

Additional jobs are operating the dishwasher and learning how to work items in the kitchen.

Participants are also responsible for collecting and recycling items from each of the YMCA classrooms, as well as helping out wherever they are needed.

“If the teachers of my nursery school program as well as the after-school program have any photocopying or preparations for projects, the [members of the program] go into the classroom and help with an activity,” said Suzanne Richards, director of youth development and special needs programs.

Participants can select the days of the week they want to work.

They earn “Y” dollars for accomplishing tasks, which enables them to purchase items from Amazon or the Dollar Store, according to Richards.

Innovative Vocations “focuses on life skills and serves to increase independence,” Richards said. “They learn about money, saving, and earning.”

Those who are enrolled in the program can choose what days they want to come.

“They can come every day if they like,” she said. “Wednesday is our busiest day but it varies each day.”

The cost of the program is about $20 per day for YMCA members and $25 per day for non-members.


YMCA staff member Noel Senna, an aide for children with special needs at Darien High School, came up with the idea for Innovative Vocations.

“We had a few participants coming to our after-school special needs program who are over the normal age for the program, so there wasn’t a lot for them to do,” Richards said.

Innovative Vocations started in September as a pilot, and was very successful, according to Richards.

She added that people learned about Innovative Vocations through word of mouth.

Jon Carlo Kearney, who is enrolled in the program, said “Noel makes working fun.”

Registration is still open for the current session, which runs through Dec. 20. The next session begins Jan. 2. For more information, contact Suzanne Richards at 203-655-8228, ext. 1331, send an email to srichards@darien-ymca.org, or visit darien-ymca.org.