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Our Vision’s Special Athletes Bring the Family Y’s Community Role into Focus

Lee and Sean of Our Vision at this year's Penguin Plunge at Compo Beach.

The kids from CLASP first started coming to the Westport Weston Family Y on Saturday mornings over 35 years ago. Now, jokes Julie McNamee, “they think they own the place.”

In time, the weekly visits grew to include some 30 boys and girls, who, along with their parents and volunteer caregivers, spend the morning swimming, exercising and taking part in arts and crafts and other activities at the Family Y.

Julie’s daughter Sherri was six years old when she joined the program, which provides recreation and Special Olympics opportunities for people with developmental disabilities. Now 38, “Sherri has made lifelong friends with the children she’s grown up playing with at the Y,” says Julie. “This same group has come through life together, and it’s their second family.”

The group, which several years ago changed its name from CLASP Recreation to Our Vision, is parent-run, and everyone takes part in carpooling, participating in recreation activities and helping with the annual fundraiser.

Derry McBrinn has organized the Saturday visits to the Family Y since 1978, when his son Patrick was eight years old. “Back then, there were no recreational programs for special needs kids,” says Derry. “A group of parents wanted to do something for their kids. Patrick joined when he started in Special Olympics. The Y has given us an opportunity to carry on a program for all of this time, making sure that we had a place to conduct our activities — the pool, gym and arts and crafts.”

Rosemary Halstead, co-chair of the Family Y’s Building What Matters capital campaign, with Our Vision’s Julie McNamee, at the March 19 presentation of the Y’s construction plans for its new facility at Mahackeno.

Though most of the “kids” from Our Vision are now in their 30s and 40s, their Saturday morning visits to the Y continue. “It’s not just the exercise and the special classes,” adds Julie. “Socialization is a vital part of being — for anyone. Our kids can’t really make their social life on their own. So for them to have a program to come into, not only to socialize with one another but also to be mingled within the community … what the Y has given them is beyond wonderful.”

In appreciation of this longstanding partnership, the group recently made a $1,000 donation in support of the Family Y’s Building What Matters campaign to fund and construct a new Y facility.

“We wanted to show our support and give the Y a very big ‘thank you’ for all that it’s done for us over the years,” says Julie, who also serves as chairman of the board of CLASP Homes, the local nonprofit that provides homes and opportunities for people with developmental disabilities. “I can’t say enough about the Y. They are the epitome of a community service organization in that they reach out to everybody.”

“The Family Y is so grateful to Our Vision for supporting our capital campaign,” says David Cohen, vice president of operations. “For more than 35 years, they have been part of our Y family. They know everybody here by name, and we’re proud that some, like Rachel Reichlin, also work part-time here.  Soon, with Our Vision’s help, we’ll be starting a new legacy in a new, fully handicapped-accessible building. Every Saturday our community is more complete by having Our Vision’s members visit the Y.”

Derry McBrinn agrees. “It’s been mutually beneficial to both of us,” he says. “Over the years, a lot of people have gotten to see our children, and have gotten the chance to see that they do have capabilities.”

Our Vision’s program at the Y runs from September to June and is just part of a busy schedule of training and activities. The kids often follow up their Saturday mornings at the Y with bowling on Saturday afternoons. There’s track on Mondays and Wednesdays; swimming on Tuesdays and Thursdays; plus dances, parties and trips.

All of Our Vision’s members participate in the Special Olympics, with half competing in swimming and half doing track and field. “That’s a big part of why we’re at the Y,” says Julie. “Our kids rack up a lot of bronzes, silvers and golds.”

The Special Olympics season kicks off on May 12, with the Southwest Regional Games at Weston High School and Weston Middle School, where some 650 Athletes and Unified Partners will gather to compete in track and field, aquatics and tennis events.

The statewide competition, the Special Olympics Connecticut 2012 Summer Games, will take place June 8-10 at Southern Connecticut State University and will feature more than 2,300 athletes, 600 coaches and nearly 3,000 volunteers. The Law Enforcement Torch Run also takes place that June weekend and involves 3,500 law enforcement officers, volunteers and Special Olympics athletes running over 640 miles through 100 cities and towns in Connecticut.

“We’re a busy group,” says Julie. “They’re great, fun-loving kids and they get along well. That’s why we give a lot of credit to the Y, which has helped them lead full, enriched lives.”