LIVINGSTON, NJ – The West Essex YMCA in conjunction with the Livingston Board of Education held a six-week learning loss program for teens with autism from July 2 through August 6.

“The BOE offers a summer learning ‘loss program’ at Burnett Hill School for district children who will most benefit from avoiding summer learning loss,” said Cheryl Francione, associate executive director at the West Essex YMCA.  “The Y program was designed to serve as an extension to the BOE program, and to focus on physical activity skills and socialization skills.”

Teens participated in numerous activities including swimming, basketball, tennis, and. The program was free, and students from both Livingston and Roseland High School volunteered to work with the teens in attendance to teach sports skills and safe exercise techniques.

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Aside from the athletic component of the program, the development of social and public speaking skills was a key focus. According to Francione, “The primary benefit of the program was the socialization. The teens made so much progress because of the optimal environment of compassion and friendship.”

Part of the program included a daily “social walk” as a group. Francione stressed it was through these activities that “the autism became secondary and the friendship, socialization and opportunities became primary and they were able to flourish because of that.”

Livingston resident Ellen Snyder’s son Sam attended the program. Snyder said, “The Y program is the missing link that I have been seeking for my son. It taught Sam physical activity and socialization skills in an environment of full support. Without this important combination, I don’t think Sam can succeed in life.  All that he needed was a chance, and the Y program gave him the opportunity to flourish.”

Francione also stated that the benefits of the program extended to the YMCA’s staff and teen volunteers. “These youths have so much to offer. We developed an environment that enabled them to succeed, and the results were astonishing. They played sports, exercised and swam with confidence. They made new friends and learned new skills. Most importantly, they were happy - and so were all of our volunteers. We saw smiles all around."

Francione added, “I think we have a highly motivated community with a lot of people willing to volunteer, and that makes all of the difference. We’re excited about developing a group of young leaders who have the desire to create greater understanding and compassion in our community.”

The West Essex YMCA hopes to continue this program as well as other programs for teens with special needs throughout the school year.