Connect Us is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to instill skills in preschool and elementary-age children necessary to becoming socially competent, self-confident and resilient individuals throughout their lives.
Connect Us was founded in 2009 by Stephanie Schiff, whose 5-year-old son was struggling socially. She observed that while his classmates were being invited to birthday parties and developing friendships, her son was withdrawing from his peers and family. This prompted her to visit his recess. She was alarmed by what she discovered: Cliques, bullying, and social isolation were beginning as early as kindergarten! She watched her socially awkward son make attempts to play with peers, but he was rejected or ignored. She feared that if this rejection continued, her son would become vulnerable to bullying, low self-esteem and depression. Fueled by his yearning for friendships and her determination to create a safe play environment for children, Schiff established Connect Us.
The growth of Connect Us since we piloted our first summer camp program 5 years ago has been phenomenal. This year we've received several new opportunities:
After providing our Recess Facilitation & Parent Training Program in several Cherry Creek elementary schools, we partnered with our first Denver Public School, Lowry Elementary. Our goal is to partner with DPS to serve additional under-served schools in the Denver Metro area.
Increased enrollment enabled us to expand our after- school social groups from four groups per week to six. This year, our goal is to maintain this number of groups and add a morning program for preschoolers and half-day kindergartners.
Our summer camp served 114 children in 2013, a 17% increase in enrollment. Based on years of steady growth, in 2014, we expect to enroll over 135 campers.
This is the first year that space to host our summer camp was donated, enabling us to hire additional therapists and support staff. This reduced our camper to facilitator ratio from 8:1 to 4:1.
We were able to provide 10% more in scholarship funding due to the monies raised at our first annual fundraising event in July 2012. We anticipate nearly doubling that amount for our 2nd annual fundraiser, held in Sept, 2013. Monies raised will go directly to all of our programs and individual scholarships.
This summer we provided volunteer training and job-skill mentoring for a middle-school student and a recent high school graduate, both on the autism spectrum as well other pre-teens and teens without diagnoses. Their results were extraordinary and have inspired us to further develop a program that will benefit those who have participated in our social groups and camp through 5th grade.
Connect Us launches careers! We have partnered with the University of Colorado, Denver to provide internships for graduating students interested in child-service careers. We trained four interns in our after-school and recess programs in the role of group facilitator. Three were hired as summer camp facilitators. Two have been hired by our partner, Breakthrough Interventions, as full-time therapists working privately with ASD children. They will also be contracting with Connect Us to run our after school social groups. In the last few years, a total of 7 Connect Us facilitators have become Breakthrough therapists!
Our greatest need is funding. We excel in the area of high quality programming. This includes recruiting, training and retaining phenomenal staff, developing and implementing highly effective and creative curricula, producing extraordinary results, maintaining a high participant retention rate, customer satisfaction and referral rate and operating on a shoestring budget. We've accomplished this due to the dedication and passion of our staff and the Connect Us community we have developed in the past 5 years. The vast majority of our income comes from program tuition and the rest from private and corporate donations and proceeds from our annual fundraiser. In order to continue providing this level of service AND keep low program fees, offer individual scholarships and work with under-served schools, it is imperative that we expand our financial resources. Key staff members currently volunteer 100's of hours each month. Salaries commensurate with these roles will be necessary for the organization to thrive.
Board leadership and development is our second greatest need. We are seeking qualified individuals who can spearhead our fundraising efforts, assist with strategic planning, marketing, social media and community outreach.
We are in need of additional operational support. Hundreds of hours are volunteered each month by our two directors. There are several research and administrative projects that would be beneficial for us to complete. We need to apply for grants on a regular basis. We need to host more fundraising events and develop a stronger community outreach program to keep our stakeholders engaged and active. We need to develop strategic partnerships, publish our data and publish our model. created by co-founder and program director, Dr. Annette Nunez: The Social Competence Inclusive Play Model (SCIP).
We have excelled at hiring and training new people. We are experts in bringing together diverse groups of children and helping them grow in the ways that serve each individual best. We offer highly successful, goal-oriented curriculum that have been proven to achieve positive results. Our participant retention rate is over 60%. 99% of our new clients have been referred by other Connect Us families. Communities have urged us to offer programs in other areas, several out of state. Our model makes a substantial difference in children's lives. School principals and social workers are regularly referring students to us. We have established a wonderful reputation and have developed strong partnerships with families, communities and school districts in the Denver Metro area, teachers, psychologists, pediatricians and other child-service providers. We know of no other organization that leverages the power of play to bring out the best in young children. We are unique in how we are successful at uniting children with autism and other related disorders and typically developing children….for the benefit of all!
In this new era of relationship building through social media, it is critical that we 1) closely monitor and assess the next generation's social development and 2) provide social-skill building, cooperative-play, and recess programs to ALL children early in life. It is more important today than ever before to give them a good social start. Our model helps to prepare ALL kids to navigate and effectively manage an often demanding, exclusive and unkind social world.
All children are socially vulnerable. The current generation of parents have yet to experience the ramifications of growing up in a social-media/video-game/technology-obsessed world-a world where instant gratification and isolation are norms and where working through problems and acquiring relationship skills are largely dealt with via texts and Facebook. Children who are socially disadvantaged already face isolation. If they do not receive adequate opportunities to practice and develop social skills early on, their deficits are likely to have an even greater impact on their futures. Connect Us children will have an edge not only in managing this world, but will have the skills to overcome its' challenges and thrive in it.
The Connect Us board of directors is active in supporting the organization's programs and mission, which have proven to be very successful. Our data indicates that Connect Us youngsters with autism and related disorders have increased self-control, frustration tolerance and resiliency. They are demonstrating an increased effort to interact with peers and develop relationships. Typically developing children are gaining leadership skills, an appreciation of differences and are becoming more inclusive. All of these children are less susceptible to being bullied or becoming a bully. Program enrollment has increased each year, and our largest program, summer camp, had a 64% return rate in 2013. We have reached thousands of children through our elementary school recess programs. Our results to this point have been achieved on a shoe string budget.
Our programs have not only benefited the children, families and schools we directly impact. The training and job skills our college interns gain through our programs have enabled them to acquire permanent positions as behavioral therapists with our partner, Breakthrough Interventions.
Although we have received sufficient income to maintain our current operational structure, our greatest challenge is acquiring the funding to grow the organization and provide services to under-served communities. We have been unsuccessful at obtaining foundation grants because we are "a young organization", "our client's disabilities are not severe" and "the majority of our clients are not financially at-risk." We are actively seeking board members who are able to help us increase our financial resources through their spheres of influence. In addition, we are seeking partnerships with corporations who support missions like ours and offer matching programs to their employees.
"The Connect Us staff is highly skilled at helping children cultivate relationships with their peers. They offer a proactive approach to promoting social intelligence by working with children in "real time situations" using child-directed, physical play to increase resiliency, flexibility, self-confidence and negotiation skills."
- Dr. Mary Shay, Principal
Cottonwood Creek Elementary School
"Since Connect Us our son's confidence and self-esteem have exploded! He has changed from being a quiet observer; reluctantly joining in activities to an active leader among his peers."
- Dr. & Mrs. Arthur L. (Children Attend Cottonwood Creek Elementary)
"Within a few short weeks, we have seen both our kids' confidence grow. Our son, who has always made excuses to avoid doing things is now not only willing, but wanting to go out and try new things. This is exactly what we needed for our kids."
- Karn & Rose B. (Children Attend Cottonwood Creek Elementary)
"My girls were respected for exactly who they are, how they are. Each child is unique and the counselors at Connect Us take the time to learn what each one of them is about."
- Marisa H. (Children attend Cottonwood Creek Elementary)
"Connect Us doesn't do doormats! They empower kids to express their feelings, confront unfair play and to stick up for others."
- Laurie R. (Children Attend Dry Creek Elementary)
These folks are AMAZING and have really helped my youngest with the challenges she faces. For the first time EVER, she has a place she actually WANTS to go, and looks forward to coming to camp. What you've done in just a few short weeks has already made a difference for us at home.
- Shar G. (Children attend Bear Creek Elementary)
"My son is on the autism spectrum and my daughter is gifted so it is usually a big challenge finding activities that they can both participate in. This camp was the perfect fit for our family. I would highly recommend Connect Us to other families."
- Susan S.
"At the beginning of the school year both our boys, ages 6 and 8, were struggling socially. It was heartbreaking to see this and not know how to "fix" the problem. We were so lucky to find Connect Us. They gained confidence and learned strategies that have empowered them with the tools they need to blossom."
- Sandra and Eyal Y. (Children attend Heritage Elementary)
"When my son, Justin entered the social skills group at Connect Us, he had social, communication and behavioral issues. Now, my son can play with other children and enjoys this time. We saw significant improvements in communication, emotional reaction, happiness and self-confidence. It is a deep joy to witness the social life that Connect Us fosters. It has only been 8 weeks and my son has improved so much. I always wanted a group like this and never could find one. I cannot recommend Connect Us highly enough."
- Laura S. (Child attends Indian Hills Elementary)
"The biggest thing for us was that both our guys could attend - not only my Asperger's kid, but little brother too. This helps to unite them as a team and make our oldest feel "typical." They both seemed to have a better social awareness of the children around them - something lacking the older one because of his Asperger's and in the younger one because of his age. We would (and DID) recommend them to everyone we meet."
- Kim L. (Children attend Green Mountain)