Whole Children: “If you can dream it, you can do it.”

wholechildrenPublished in baystateparent Magazine

Walk through the doors of Whole Children in Hadley, Massachusetts, and you will discover much more than special needs kids practicing martial arts, playing Pokémon, or acting onstage. You will discover a place where children of all abilities not only thrive as learners and doers of recreational and social skills, but also are accepted for the unique people they are, and encouraged to be all that they can be.

“There’s a sense of joy and lightness and humor here,” says Whole Children founder and director Carrie McGee. “There’s a collective way that we celebrate our kids. We don’t give up on them. Everyone is welcome, and parents in our community quickly realize that they’re not alone. We support each other.”

Ten years ago, Carrie started Whole Children out of her desire to give her son, Alex (now 18) opportunities to succeed in a safe, fun, social setting. Doctors had told Carrie when Alex was diagnosed as a young child with William’s Syndrome all the things he’d never do. “I kept thinking, ‘How do you know that? How can you possibly know what he is capable of?’” she says. The idea of a place where children like Alex could develop social skills in a fun, supportive, accepting environment took hold.

“Alex was the Inspiration for Whole Children”

In 2004, Carrie and a group of like-minded parents got together and started Whole Children, offering a handful of movement classes like yoga and gymnastics therapeutically designed to work on their kids’ social skills. “Alex was the inspiration for Whole Children,” she says.  The first year, Whole Children operated out of a small space and served about 40 families. Since then, Whole Children has grown exponentially: In 2010, the center ran 133 classes for over 300 kids of all abilities in a new 7,600 square foot facility complete with a gym, café, sensory movement room and more. Each year, Whole Children also puts on concerts with its Joyful Chorus.

Tammy Rousseau’s son Cameron (now 16) has been attending Whole Children since its inception, when he was in first grade. Adopted from Russia, Cameron has a number of challenges, including seizures and anxiety disorder. Yet Whole Children has transformed him over the years from a child who wouldn’t leave his mother’s side to a thriving, happy kid who loves to sing and perform onstage.

“To see the transformation in Cameron, to see him sing in front of 800 people… I can’t even put into words,” says Tammy. “Whole Children gave him that opportunity.”

Whole Children Grows Up

As the first group of children has matured over the last ten years, Whole Children’s programs have adapted to their changing life stages as well. The center, now joined with The Association for Community Living in Springfield MA, is able to fund additional programs geared toward teens and young adults through their Milestones program. “As our own kids began to grow up, we included new programs that met their needs,” says Carrie.  Milestones offers classes on social skills, dating, cooking, careers and independent living, along with performing arts classes.

The ability to flex with the needs of children and parents is a cornerstone of the Whole Children philosophy. “It’s shaped by the people who are involved with it and care about it - not by a bureaucracy with a certain agenda.  It’s really organized around this sense that you don’t have to have a specific diagnosis to come. Some people who come here have no special needs at all,” says Carrie.

When Dawn of Florence, MA first brought her son Benjamin (now 10) to Whole Children, she wanted to find a place where he would experience structure and security. Ben, an academically gifted second-grader with social and developmental challenges, was going through a difficult time adjusting to school. But at Whole Children, “being different is the norm here. You’re not the outlier,” she says. “Whole Children was a lifesaver for us, because it was a place where Ben could be happy and feel good. It’s a safe place to be. It supports our family so well.”

The Powerful Connection with Parents

Whole Children was originally formed by parents with a personal desire to meet a perceived hole in their children’s lives. The biggest surprise, according to Carrie, was the realization of how much it has met the needs of parents as well. “The number one thing we hear from parents is the sense that when they walk in here, they feel welcome,” says Carrie. “Not judged, not evaluated, just welcome.”

Danielle felt this connection immediately the first time she brought Ben to Whole Children. “It’s been a place to meet other families who truly ‘get it,’” she says. “There’s a common language and a common understanding that’s really affirming.”

Parents not only empathetically support each other, but feel listened to by the organization. “They are very collaborative,” says Danielle. “They work with parents to brainstorm what our needs are. Because they are parents themselves, they get it. So many agencies aren’t like that.”

Carrie says that Whole Children is attuned to parents who may be wary after coming from other agency experiences that aren’t able to be so flexible. “We reassure each parent that wherever their child is, we will meet them there,” she says. “We’ve seen such growth in kids, because we just don’t give up on them. And we affirm the parents, because it’s a shared experience. We need each other.”

Future Possibilities

Over the last ten years, Whole Children has served more than 800 families – some who have commuted from nearby towns in Connecticut and Vermont to participate in the center’s unique programs. When asked what’s on the horizon for Whole Children, Carrie says that wherever the future takes them, it will be grounded in their vision to help children far surpass expectations, open new doors and discover the worlds that await their future success. This vision for the organization, according to Carrie, embodies the vision the small group of parents who began Whole Children had for the center– that “anything is possible if people come together and believe in the mission and each other,’ she says.

For Tammy, this hopeful vision has transformed her personal vision for her son Cameron, whom she once thought would be at home as an adult and requiring care. “Now I see him totally having a part-time job, and living independently with his friends,” she says. “As long as he has support, he can do anything. Anything is possible, and he feels this. That’s what Whole Children has given him. It has changed my child’s life.”

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