For many of us the end-of-the-year is a time of giving, and to that end we’re here profiling three Woolfers doing extraordinary good in the world.
Learn more about the great work of Caitlin Cassaro with Extreme Kids & Crew, Dana Marlowe with I Support the Girls, and Jen Losey James with Crisis Text Hotline — find out how you can get involved, too!
Can you tell us what Extreme Kids & Crew is and how it works, how you support your population? Extreme Kids & Crew provides play-spaces for children with disabilities and their families. We were founded with a simple concept in mind: to be a safe, fun and judgement-free zone for the whole family. Play is vital to every child’s development, but when you spend two hours commuting to school and there are an unending number of provider visits (doctors, therapists, etc.), it can be hard to find time to have fun as family.
We provide inclusive arts and play programs to children with any disability and/or neurological differences, and their siblings, their friends and their caregivers are welcomed and encouraged to join. We host weekend classes, open play in our sensory gym, special events throughout the city, caregiver meet-ups and workshops, and after-school and summer camps. Our programs are free and we work hard to connect with families who are living in underserved areas of NYC. We are the place that the families whom are often discriminated against can come and relax, meet other families in similar situations, and where the children can be themselves and develop a sense of self-worth and confidence in their abilities.
How long have you worked there and how did you get started?
Like many families, I discovered Extreme Kids shortly after my second child was diagnosed with autism. Until age two Shane was called “a good baby” for his lack of need, but he had begun randomly falling out of chairs, running into walls, and complaining that the bright sun was too “loud.” Our beautiful, once-cheerful boy was no longer a child most parents wanted at birthday parties or playdates. The usual sibling strife became extreme and near impossible to navigate.
As Shane changed, my husband and I became stressed out, worried, confused, and lonely. Whether or not this was self-imposed or the result of our friends pulling away isn’t clear to me, but the feelings of isolation we felt became overwhelming.
In a desperate search for something I wasn’t even sure existed, I came across Eliza Factor online. In an open letter, she wrote about her experiences with her beautiful disabled son and two beautiful non-disabled daughters. Her letter made me cry loud, body-rocking, choking sobs. It was not about “oh how sad it is that my son is different,” but more like “all my kids are wonderful, why can’t we join the party? Where can we BE?!” I didn’t realize at the time how deeply essential a sense of community is for everyone’s well-being. Hmm, I wonder if any Woolfers know what I mean?… ha ha.
I contacted Eliza and she immediately replied. Turns out there was this little space she called Extreme Kids & Crew and they had gatherings every weekend. We went. Of course, we went! This little room with big pillows and padded floors immediately became so much more. At Extreme Kids, Shane had fun. His sister had fun. We all had fun together! Kids and other adults played with him while we sat and collected ourselves. I cried again, but this time happy tears. Extreme Kids made me feel like it was going to be OK, and that we were not alone. So what if Shane flapped and yelled and ran around the room crashing into, luckily, padded walls. We had found our community.
I started volunteering, helping to create a financial file and put some systems in place, all non-interesting aspects of running a little start up, except they are interesting to me. I was, at the time, the CFO for Friends of Firefighters (a nonprofit offering private support and therapy to members of the FDNY). Prior to that, I created a little freelance business helping start-ups and nonprofits put the behind-the-scenes systems in functioning order so that the amazing founders would be free to continue growing their vision (and not worrying about, for instance, payroll tax or annual audits.
In the spring of 2013, I interviewed for the job of Executive Director/COO of Extreme Kids & Crew. The organization was growing and turning into a business, something Eliza was not interested in managing. The word went out that a search was on and I happily threw my hat in the ring. I stepped into the role of Executive Director during the time I facilitated moving the organization into PS 15 in Red Hook. The past six years have been amazing. I have never loved a job like I love this one.