When Jacqueline Daniel was a college student at the University of North Georgia, she looked for opportunities to do volunteer work for people with developmental disabilities. There was not an organization focusing on that need at the time, so she decided to start her own.
It began as a Sidekicks Respite event in 2001, but it has since grown into a much larger organization called ConnectAbility that serves around 150 families a year in five counties – Lumpkin, White, Dawson, Forsyth and Hall – with monthly activities for special-needs kids and adults. There’s a spring prom and a Thanksgiving banquet that draws 200 people, among other social activities.
“We strive to empower both children and adults who have special needs with social activities and other enrichment opportunities they might not have otherwise,” says program coordinator Vicki Schweitzer.
The third Friday of every month, the group holds a party, talent show or other networking event at different locations around Dahlonega. And ConnectAbility recently became the local delegation for the Special Olympics for Dawson and Lumpkin counties. The organization also coordinates support groups for parents and workshops for siblings to promote better understanding of integrating developmental disabilities into daily life.
The highlight of the year, though, is the Thousand Words project, which pairs participants with experienced photographers who help them document special moments. The initiative culminates with a gala auction of the photographs.
“The photography from this project is just amazing,” Schweitzer says. “One of our participants, Jonathan Gross, who has Down Syndrome, really has an eye, and we think he’s found a calling if not a potential career.”
Upcoming plans for ConnectAbility include working with community members to build a fully accessible playground.