Sherri Rea and Robin C. Gill each have a child with Down syndrome. Rea’s son, JT, is 25 and Gill’s daughter, Michelle, is 24.
Both women also have other children. However, the bond between Rea and Gill stems from when JT and Michelle were nearing age 18.
“We were all desperate because our kids were aging out of school and all their activities,” said Rea, 53. “They were at the peak of their learning because it is all starting to click then and they don’t understand why it has to stop. And they don’t feel ready to stop.”
Gill, 61, hired a retired special education teacher to tutor Michelle in reading. Then she discovered, “This is too good for one child.”
Gill reached out to Rea to share the educational opportunity with her son. Rea spread the word to other parents of young adults with Down syndrome. By that time, Gill and Rea had been friends for years.
“The Down Syndrome network is tight,” Rea said. “We all support each other.”
Six students showed up at Gill’s door for the first session, which consisted of three hours of instruction in her kitchen. The weekly gathering, which Gill called SKILLS (Students gather Knowledge and Independence in a Loving, Learning Social) Group, continued to meet in her home for the next five years.
The Down syndrome network is tight. We all support each other.
In 2013, Gill and Rea realized the hours and number of students in the SKILLS Group had expanded beyond Gill’s home. So they reached out to the Peace Moravian Church, at the intersection of Colony and Rea Roads. That site is close to Gill’s South Charlotte home. The church provided them the use of their common room and some closet space.
“We don’t pay a dime,” Gill said. “They have been so wonderful to us.”
The SKILLS Group began meeting on Wednesdays with a dozen young adults with Down Syndrome and now includes 24 students. The meeting days now are Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, and they will soon add Monday.
The curriculum is based on the needs and interests of the students.
“Each student who comes here adds a different facet to the program,” Gill said.
Gill, 61, hires instructors and creates curriculum based on their needs.
“We want them communicating, following directions and stimulated,” Gill said. “And we want them having fun.”
The original book group and reading skills group has morphed into much more than reading, Gill said. It now includes multiple activities stemming from each book, including math and drama.
The students put on a play at the end of the school year. They also study music and are learning to play a variety of instruments. With use of the professional kitchen and the garden, the SKILLS Group also is studying cooking and gardening.
“We grew over 160 pounds of vegetables last year,” Gill said.
There also is physical education, yoga and art appreciation.
“We also focus on healthy life choices, since people with Down syndrome tend to get heavy,” Rea said.
All of the teachers are paid, with the parents paying a fee for their children’s participation and the rest of the funds coming from volunteers and donations. Gill has converted the Skills Group to a nonprofit and devotes much of her time to coordinating it.
“I feel the same way about these kids as I do about my own,” she said.
The feeling is mutual.
When asked about his favorite part of the Study Skills session on Wednesday, Jonathan Singer, 28, who lives in a group home, said, “I love seeing Robin every Wednesday.”
Gill and Rea worried that their location was in jeopardy when Hope Community Church bought the facility from Peace. But their fears were unfounded.
“They have been equally welcoming and generous,” Gill said. “They donated their professional kitchen to us and let us continue to work in the garden and gave us another room that is ours.”
Gill has added lessons and instructors as the needs arise, including group lessons on technology at the Apple store and ballroom dancing at a local dance studio.
“Don’t try to stop our kids,” Rea said. “These kids will learn anything that you take the time to teach them. It just takes them longer.”
Danielle Gumb, 24, a music therapist, said teaching the SKILLS students music is a joy. “They surprise me every week,” she said, “and they teach me about myself.”
Katya Lezin is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.