Thank you to all of the families who attended Game Night!
IN THE GAME – GAME NIGHT AT CHEERFUL HELPERS
It’s Game Night at Cheerful Helpers. I like to make sure Jace and I arrive early to social events. He's less overwhelmed when he can see the crowd grow gradually. But we arrive late to Game Night. We walk in. Jace stands in the hallway assessing the two game rooms. In the small, quiet room, a few kids are playing cards. In the large room - a lot of kids, games, and noise. I'm excited to see my Alumni parent friends in the noisy room. “C'mon, Jace, let's go in there,” I venture. Yeah, right, mom. As I take his hand, he stops in his tracks. No way is he going in there. Not yet. I feel that momentary surge of frustration that takes me back to another time. A time that a lot of Cheerful Helpers parents might have experienced. Before Cheerful Helpers, Jace attended a co-op preschool. We were invited to many birthday parties. I came to dread these parties. We would walk in, and I would encourage Jace to join the party. He would refuse to play with the other kids, insisting on finding the quiet room where he could play by himself. For the entire party. He loved the cake, but when kids gathered to sing the Birthday song, he would run and watch from a hundred feet away. Since his birth, Jace had stopped in his tracks at every group gathering; baby classes, music classes, creative dance classes, playdates, mommy groups, even small gatherings with relatives. He would cry and want to leave within minutes. I would arrive at each event hoping something would change, but I've learned that hope doesn't help Jace to change.
But tonight, as I reflexively feel that frustration, I remind myself it's not likely we will be alone in a quiet room all night. We are in our third year at Cheerful Helpers and Jace has changed. Not because I hoped for it, but because of the committed, skilled, caring CH staff. After about 10 minutes, Jace ventures into the larger room without my prompting him. Moments later he's sitting with his friend, Asher, and I'm chatting with my two Alumni mom friends, Leah and Victoria. Jace is playing with a friend. I'm chatting with other moms. Even after 3 years at Cheerful Helpers, I don't take these moments for granted. Jace's challenges not only isolated him from other kids, they isolated me as well. This is the second alumni social gathering, and I don't think any of us take the joy in the room for granted. Having fun with friends is hard won for our kids. We are all at various stages in our Cheerful Helpers journey; there are grads from 10, 12 years ago, from last year, and Jace and his friends will graduate in July. And then there are the families still in their first year. Those kids are having a harder time, I think. It's still not easy to be in a big, noisy group. But I know that in two years, it will be different for them. A little easier.
Charades. The kids have finished decorating their sugar cookies with frosting and sprinkles, and now we are all sitting in the circle. One child goes to the center and makes the sound and gesture of an animal. The first to guess the right animal goes to the center. Kids are calling out, kids are going to the center. There are a lot of bunnies. Again, I'm struck by all of us sitting together playing a group game. Kids raising their hands, staying in a circle, laughing, having ideas, participating.
Jace spent three years of pre-school without once joining in at circle time! At one point, Andrew, an alum from last year, is in the center, and struggling a little to get his idea across. Ellen Reinstein calls out to Andrew, “Andrew, do it again!” I am reminded of something I heard at Alumni Night earlier this year. One of the alumni parents brought a photo of her son's High School graduation. The boy is standing between Ellen Reinstein and Ellen Pearlman. Years after his Cheerful Helpers Graduation, there they were still by his side. His mom told us, “they never leave you.” Andrew is no longer a student at CH, but Ellen R. and Ellen P. will never leave him or any of our kids.
Jace participates. Sometimes he guesses the right animal, but calls out in a very tiny and sweet voice that no one can hear. One of his challenges is not trusting himself and holding back. It keeps anyone from knowing he's even there. His teacher, Diana, and others at CH are encouraging him to use a bigger voice. He manages to be heard several times, and goes to the center, becoming an elephant, and a bunny. I am able to sit with him, and feel connected to him, which is another thing I don't take for granted; Jace is a kid who often escapes into his imagination, running scripts from TV shows. It isn't always easy for me to connect with him. So here we are - I just get to relax and be with my kid, playing games in a room full of other kids and adults, as if it's something we have always done. Abby, a graduate from two years ago goes to the center, pretending to be a bunny. When Gregory guesses her animal, she comes back to the circle and gets a big, supportive hug from Addie, an 18-year-old grad. I happen to know that they are both in the same school now, and I love seeing that kind of “big sister” support Abby's getting from her friend.
All these kids have watched each other struggle. Struggle to connect with themselves, their friends, and with their work. Today is about just enjoying being together. But all of us know the hard work that it takes to be in that room together. How many hours of classroom time, therapies, and social skills classes has it taken all of our kids to have this day of games, songs, and cookie decorating?
Jace still has a lot of challenges. There's a lot of work ahead for us. He's sitting with friends, but he may or may not be engaging in a reciprocal conversation. Or he might be talking about TV characters or storylines that don't make sense to anyone but him. He might not remember the rules of the game or track the progression because his processing is slow, but he's in the game. And having fun. From my perspective, Game Night is a celebration that these kids are now in the game. At whatever capacity they can be. And that's no small thing.
The evening ends with everyone singing “take me out to the ballgame”. We miss the song because Jace suddenly decides he wants a nametag and we're looking for one without any luck. Later, on the way home, he gets really upset that he missed the song. He and I sing it together in the car. That's how it goes for us sometimes.
I can honestly say that today, when we go to parties, I expect that Jace will have fun with friends. I expect that I will also have a good time. It isn't perfect, but it's so much better than it was. How has this happened? Every day for almost 3 years at Cheerful Helpers, there has been an expectation of Jace to play with friends, to talk to friends, to be in the same space with friends. It has been hard. And ... this expectation is beginning to become Jace's desire. And something I can count on much of the time. And that's no small thing.