In the late 1990s, when Mark and Vinnie Smith sought support for their family, specifically their special needs son, they found there were not a lot of options in the Quad-Cities.
So their solution was to establish a summer camp for children with special needs at Camp Abe Lincoln in Blue Grass.
Not knowing what the response would be, the Smiths, along with Dave and Joanie Steil, placed a sign-up sheet at their local Y.
“The response was overwhelming,” Mark Smith says. “People were lined up and waiting for us.”
Limited to a capacity of 40 children for that first camp, the organizers had to turn people away. “That’s when we knew that we had to do more,” Smith added.
Hand-in-Hand was the “more.”
Fifteen years later, the home-grown nonprofit organization has expanded from summer camps to a year-round operation serving more than 700 children and family members through a variety of programs. Among them is an after-school program that has been increasingly popular.
At 2:20 p.m. Monday through Friday, students begin to trickle in at the Hand-in-Hand site, 3860 Middle Road, Bettendorf. Caregivers who are trained to meet the specific needs of each child greet the youngsters and help them to get settled in with a snack and activities.
Children can participate in energetic activities, including drama, dressing up in costumes, indoor games and outside play, or something quieter such as art or reading. Homework help is provided for those who need it.
“The school day is already so structured for these students. We provide activities for the kids with a more relaxed schedule,” Smith said.
For Heather and Brad Malli, both of whom work, the after-school program provides much-needed services for their special needs child and gives them peace of mind.
“We are confident that our children are safe and well- cared-for while we are working,” Heather says. “We don’t have to worry about whether or not they understand how to care for children with special needs.”
Before entering the after-school program, both of their sons, including the one with special needs, attended the day care and preschool programs offered at Hand-in-Hand for children of all abilities.
Smith believes that an after-school program for children with special needs is critical for their families.
“For a lot of families, it is hard to keep on working, to accept a promotion, to run errands, attend parent-teacher conferences or spend time with their other children. Hand-in-Hand helps parents so they can know that their child is safe, having fun and that their special needs are being specifically addressed,” he said.
Smith believes that if Hand-in-Hand is doing its job, families can do their job better as well.
Heather Malli agrees. “If I was worried all day that my children may not be safe and well-cared-for, I would not be a successful employee.”
Hand-in-Hand offers far more than weekday programs during the school year. There also are weekend respite events, including movie nights, Saturday morning activities, an art program, a bowling league, summer programs and camps, and a “food, friends and fun” program in which participants learn how to prepare a meal, eat together and share in the clean-up responsibilities.
Smith says the after-school program can be a gateway leading children to try other things.
“Hand-in-Hand is definitely about the children, but it’s also about the families. It doesn't solve all the problems faced by families with special needs children, but it helps them to keep the train on the track.”