Dena’s Interview

Dena Cooperman

How did you find out about NSSRA and what role has Inclusion played in her story over the years?

We found out about NSSRA just from the box on the Park District of Highland Park registration form, that’s the truth. Danielle was very fortunate that she only had two other aides prior to Molly, each for two summers in a row. She was fortunate to have familiarity, and that’s a huge piece for children with special needs. Danielle especially functions on routine and what she can count on, so she needs predictability.

The Inclusion companions that Danielle had at camp the first 4 years, they were great. They did a great job, but then Molly Avery showed up and I couldn’t believe this human actually existed. It was like unicorns and glitter and rainbows. She’s amazing.

How have NSSRA programs and services impacted Danielle and your family? How has your family’s relationship with Inclusion companion Molly Avery supported those efforts?

The summer that Molly started with Danielle was just after a very difficult school year, and Danielle was very afraid to be anywhere alone. She was very unlike herself, and it was not a situation for which your typical college freshman would willingly volunteer. After a few challenging situations the first couple days of camp, I went to the camp and gave Molly an out. Prior to camp starting, I had shared with her an understanding of Danielle and what to expect, and the summer had not started off that way. I told her that she could walk away, absolutely no hard feelings, and she looked at me and said, “No, I gave you my word and I am not leaving Danielle.”

With Molly totally connecting with Danielle, and understanding how fragile she was at that point, she did everything she could to make sure that Danielle felt safe. She was totally responsible for her at camp, in the pool, off-premise, everywhere, and in doing so what Molly did was give Danielle a second opportunity at being a child. And that was just the beginning.

From there, Molly really got to know Danielle. She got a sense of when to push Danielle to be independent, but also was there to support her when she needed a little more help. Even though she spent four summers with Danielle, she would still check in at the start of each camp and say, “Dena, is there something you want me to focus on this year.” Anytime I find something new or want to try something new with Danielle and share it with Molly, she doesn’t roll her eyes, she just follows suit and follows through, and then gives me feedback. She’ll say, “You know, Dena, this worked today, this didn’t, I tweaked this.” Molly worked with whatever I was working on with Danielle at the time.

There was never a moment that I had to say, “Is she doing a good job, is Molly encouraging her to be with her general ed peers, is Molly encouraging Danielle to do activities…” Molly goes above and beyond any expectation that any parent could have, and Molly knows the other kids who are in the program as well. I’m friends with the parents of some of those moms and Molly knows how important it is for Danielle to interact with her peers, her peers that have special needs as well as her neurotypical peers.

Molly will say, “Dena, this girl is great with Danielle, I think you should have a playdate with her.” So I’ll call the other girl’s mom and they’d have a playdate. Molly gets these kids. She celebrates all these children’s successes, she connects with these kids, but never losing her sense of the immense responsibility on her shoulders for advocating for a human being who cannot advocate for themselves. Some of these children can’t speak… Danielle needs assistance with some things, but if Danielle can put her sock on over her toes, it’s celebrated. Molly gets it. No matter how small the accomplishment is, it’s a giant leap, and that’s a huge thing. Danielle has always had an adult with her telling her what to do since the beginning of time, and Molly knowing when to pull back and let her recognize, “I did this all on my own.” You can’t teach that.

She continues to stay in touch with Danielle, continues to sing her praises, continues to push Danielle… Now that she is teaching in Ohio, they FaceTime probably two or three times a week. It’s not like Molly was like, “I’m a camp counselor and I’m done and finished,” she continues cheering Danielle on. Danielle still has that connection with her — she was so excited to tell Molly that she got her braces off and wanted to show Molly her smile.

Too, it was Molly who said to me, “I think Camp Duncan would be great for Danielle, I think you should sign her up for Camp Igloo.” I would never have known about other opportunities at NSSRA if not for Molly, because to me NSSRA was just a line in a box that you fill out to get an aide at the park district camp. Molly was the one who pulled back the curtain and showed me that it’s more than just providing aides at camp for Inclusion. And that’s a huge piece. So she not only took care of Danielle and was an advocate for her, but she was also the bridge to NSSRA.

What is one of your/Danielle’s favorite memories or experiences with NSSRA?

I’d say the opportunity to go to Camp Duncan, because she saw her older sister always going to camp and going on trips for the summer, or weekends with her youth group. The fact that Danielle finally had the opportunity to do something like that… Camp, I’d say, is  #1, and just below are the overnight trips she has been able to do over the last year.