MHA Announces Café Creations Interactive Learning Program

SPRINGFIELD — Café Creations, an interactive learning program designed by transition specialist Kelsey Poole in conjunction with the Mental Health Assoc. (MHA), will provide opportunities for creativity, friendship, and increasing independence for 15 adults ages 18 to 22 with autism or developmental disabilities. The program was made possible through a grant provided by the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism Inc.

Café Creations will run for three consecutive Wednesdays, July 8, 15, and 22, from 3 to 4 p.m. via the Zoom virtual meeting platform. To participate, students need access to an internet-enabled computer or tablet that can connect to Zoom. Interested individuals should sign up no later than Friday, July 3 by contacting Poole at (413) 454-7112 or kpoole019@gmail.com.

Café Creations is designed to provide adults with autism or developmental disabilities a virtual, interactive, and fun learning experience that enables them to walk away with something they created. Along the way, students have the opportunity to connect with others outside of their community, mostly in towns in Western Mass, while focusing on recreational and educational activities that incorporate meaningful connections and sustainable friendships. To finish each weekly session, students play interactive games with incentives and prizes.

Materials required for each session’s creative project will be delivered to each student’s residence in time for each session. These materials include vision boards, which enable students to get to know something about themselves and then share that with others in the group; food ingredients for students to make their own pizzas; and materials to create a lava lamp. Students are encouraged to have a job coach or parent nearby to assist with some activities, notably making pizza, which involves using an oven.

According to Poole, the program promotes independence and builds friendships through creation. “Folks with autism or developmental disabilities don’t always know how to meet others like themselves in their community,” she said. “I designed Café Creations to be an alternative way of learning and, at the same time, an alternative way of connecting with others. It provides that linkage and does so in a manner where there’s something creative happening. With this population, it’s important to peel back the support and get them to spread the wings. The projects are designed to be fun and successful, but if you burn your pizza or overflow your lava lamp, that’s a small mistake, and we learn from mistakes, so it’s OK. It’s something we can capitalize on.”

MHA’s Kim Lee initially reached out to Poole through a mutual colleague. “I started talking with Kelsey and realized she was the perfect person to design this program,” Lee recalled. “MHA brought her on board to develop the entire framework with the thought of having folks meet in a beautiful space at MHA. Then COVID entered the picture and she had to redevelop the program to be delivered virtually. To her credit, Kelsey turned this into an opportunity to give adults 18 to 22 the chance to get creative while meeting new people and planting the roots of sustainable friendships.”

Poole has been working with people with disabilities for 10 years and delivering transition services for the past five years. “I started working with young people with disabilities at Kamp for Kids,” she explained. “I applied to be a lifeguard, but the staff thought I’d be good working with kids as a counselor. I tried that, and it didn’t take me long to realize that these were the folks I wanted to be working with. It’s rewarding to make your passion your career.”

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