As a special education teacher at Oak Park-River Forest High School, Michael Carmody was all too familiar with the Illinois statute that deems individuals with developmental disabilities ineligible for support programs through the public school system the day they turn 22.
Yet as his own brother John, who has Down syndrome, started to near that age, Carmody began to realize the impact that lack of opportunity would have on his brother's life. He and his family saw just how limited the programming options would become.
"I didn't want my brother or his friends to be left out of the community or isolated. I want them involved and active members of our community and I knew I could help make that happen," says Carmody.
Carmody saw this need as his calling and the nonprofit Opportunity Knocks (opportunityknocksnow.org) was born.
Making an immediate difference
Opportunity Knocks creates a seamless environment for those with developmental disabilities to pursue educational, occupational and social interests. The first phase of the program was the creation of a three-day-a-week afterschool program for those living in Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park ages 14-30. It now has about 50 participants.
The program encourages participants to pursue their interests with each session, focusing on recreational activities, community service or hobbies and crafts. The activities range from book clubs to martial arts to woodworking and yoga. Through the program's community service days, participants get out into their neighborhoods and directly give back to organizations such as the Animal Care League.
According to Program Director Kim Meares Surprenant, there are no limitations on what activities the program will try. "I think they are learning and trying new things, which expands their comfort zones," she says. "One of the goals is to make them more comfortable within the community."
Before Opportunity Knocks, Barbara White worried about what would happen to her son Michael, who has learning disabilities.
"Without the program, Michael would just be home standing by the
window until we could be done with work," she says, adding the
program has made a huge difference in his life.
"He has been able to stay in contact with all his friends and it's a great place for them to meet up while pursuing their own hobbies. It builds his self-esteem and the guys involved in the program have been wonderful role models in his life."
According to Carmody, one of the program's strengths is the family involvement.
Creating community warriors
Throughout the program, the term "warriors" has been attached to the Opportunity Knocks participants.
"Every member of our program is a true warrior," Carmody says. "They wake up every day facing an uphill battle. They aren't dealt a great hand right off the bat. Yet they each have unique and exceptional abilities that diversify and strengthen their communities."
The Opportunity Knocks participants aren't the only ones reaping rewards.
More than 50 volunteers actively participate in each session and
more than 200 volunteers help with fundraising events, such as a
chili cook-off, golf outing and softball tournament.
"The consistency of the volunteers is overwhelming. The community involvement is spreading like wildfire," he says.
Meares Surprenant credits community support for the fundraisers'
"From the families of participants to local merchants in the area, there is a true sense of community within Opportunity Knocks," she says.
Planning for the future
The after-school program is just the start. Plans include adding a day program and eventually community-integrated living.
"We want to create a community within a community and have them
be active members doing things they want to do. We don't want them
to be hidden or isolated," Carmody says.
Carmody recently resigned from his position at the high school to focus all his attention on Opportunity Knocks.
"I don't see this as a job," added Carmody. "It's my life's work. I am doing what I am supposed to be doing. And just seeing the smile on my brother John's face is the reward."
Megan Murray Elsener is a freelance writer and mother of two.
See more of Megan's stories here.