When opportunity knocks

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.

Diploma dilemma

Should your child graduate with the rest of the class?

Every parent wants to see their child graduate from high school.
But parents of children with special needs shouldn’t jump on the
pomp and circumstance.

Why? Because accepting a diploma terminates a child’s
eligibility for special education, services they otherwise could
receive up to the day before their 22nd birthday.

“It is, in some ways, even more important to take advantage of
this option now than it was ever was in the past because the
likelihood of getting similar help in the adult system is very
low,” says attorney Matt Cohen, of Matt Cohen & Associates in
Chicago, who specializes in special needs.

Cohen says the law is in place to make sure children with
special needs are prepared to function beyond graduation even if
they meet the criteria to graduate.

Yet the diploma issue catches a lot of parents unaware.

Cohen says that’s because some schools are not eager to share
the information with parents or parents believe the law is only for
the most severely disabled children. Other parents and their
children are reluctant to be seen as failing senior year and

Even if they opt out of the diploma, the child won’t miss out on
the pomp and circumstance when their class graduates. Illinois law
allows students continuing in special ed to take part in the
ceremony, Cohen says.

Read Cohen’s 10 indicators for graduation readiness at

Tip to remember

When a student turns 18, they become the legal decision maker
unless the parent has guardianship or the student gives parents the
authority to act on their behalf, attorney Matt Cohen says.

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’ successes.

“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.

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