By Jory John - Santa Cruz Sentinel
Posted: 02/08/2011 01:30:01 AM PST
SANTA CRUZ -- A Santa Cruz nonprofit dedicated to teaching autonomy and social skills to young people with special needs is struggling against a massive budgetary shortfall, leading to concerns that it may have to close its doors.
Kid Quest, whose annual budget is $220,000, is approximately $100,000 short this year due to an insurance increase, the most severe financial situation the nonprofit has faced since it opened in 2003.
This shortfall breaks down to about $8,000 needed just this month, according to Kid Quest co-founder and programs manager Colleen Russell, who said that with the statewide budget issues, it's been difficult to find a source of funding to cover operational costs, rent, activities and excursions for the children. Grants are few and far between, Russell said, adding that the select grants they've received have been exhausted.
"Some people see this as a non-necessity, but it's a vital education for kids who lose out on the social opportunities at school," Russell said. "Something needed to be done about kids who were isolated at school, on the playground. There was a real void."
Kid Quest, which is under the umbrella of nonprofit Balance for Kids, offers a full roster of activities for special-needs children, including literacy support, homework help, cooking, art, drama and excursions including horseback riding, bowling and rock climbing. There is a veritable petting zoo, complete with rabbits, guinea pigs and chickens.
Additionally, there are numerous musical instruments, toy trains and art supplies
Throughout all of its programs and daily activities, which include theme days, Kid Quest designs "adventures that inspire children to explore the environment around them with both confidence and companionship."
On a recent Thursday, which is "theater day" a retired set designer, who once worked on "The Muppet Show," visited the center to help the children learn the fundamentals of acting, in preparation for a variety show. Each day brings its own group activity, according to programs manager Nichole Griffin, as well as a chance for the kids to simply relax with one another in a supportive setting.
Griffin said that there is nothing else like Kid Quest in Santa Cruz County.
"There is no place for these kids," she said. "The rec programs don't really have the support or understanding to accommodate them. It's a place where a child or young adult with special needs can come make friends, learn social skills, where they can take them home to life and feel that someone really listened to them and appreciated them for who they really are."
Kid Quest moved to its current North Plymouth Street location in 2007, an ADA-approved house that serves about 64 attendees. The organization works with young people ages 4 to 22, year round, serving as an after-school program, a summer school program and provides numerous activities during breaks.
Griffin said that while the financial numbers seem daunting, she's optimistic that Kid Quest will find a way to carry on.
"I have put my heart and soul into Kid Quest and these kids are like my own kids," Griffin said. "I don't want it to go away for them. I feel like staying positive will take you further then sitting around complaining."
In addition to writing grants and soliciting donations, Russell and Griffin have contacted local businesses to sponsor Kid Quest, including a Feb. 10 fundraiser at Woodstock's Pizza in Santa Cruz, where 25 percent of proceeds will go to the nonprofit.
While that's a start, Russell said that much more would be needed to ensure that Kid Quest is able to continue.
"Any donation, even $20, could help," she said. "We really need help keeping this vital program alive. It's really an incredible thing that goes on here."
Jim Hopkins, a Felton resident, has sent his son Jared, 12, to Kid Quest for the past four years. Hopkins said Jared needs close supervision, has high-needs both mentally and physically, and the Kid Quest staff has continually impressed him with their expertise, enthusiasm and professionalism.
"Many of these children are individuals who don't communicate their needs and their fears, but the staff understands them on the level that these kids are at," Hopkins said. "It makes them feel good about themselves."
Hopkins said that typically it's hard to leave your child in the hands of others, but in the case of Kid Quest, he's felt confident about the staff and facilities from the beginning.
"They have an amazing way about them," Hopkins said. "We are more than happy to leave him there because the staff is so fantastic. You don't have to drag my son to the center. He knows it's his area to get away and develop some skills and have a good time and relate and have good supervision. If we lost Kid Quest, it would be a huge impact for these kids. This is their place, their club."
WHAT: A nonprofit organization dedicated to helping children with special needs participate in the activity of their choosing.
ISSUE: Facing financial hardship, must raise $8,000 by Feb. 28 to stay afloat; must raise $100,000 by the end of this year
WHO: Number of children with special needs served: 64
To help: Send a check to Balance for Kids (c/o Kid Quest), 704 N. Plymouth St., Santa Cruz, CA 95060 or visit www.balance4kids.org click on "Kid Quest," then click "fundraising" to donate through PayPal
TO VOLUNTEER: Call 421-9159
From the Santa Cruz Sentinel
June 3, 2006
Wearing a white shirt and a chef's hat that hangs slightly off the center of his head, Danny stands in the kitchen of the Louden Nelson Center, overseeing the preparation of the evening's food.
The theme is Mexican, and children and staff members from Kid Quest fill the small kitchen, where organic beans simmer on the stove top next to vegetarian taco filling.
Danny likes to watch people cook, and said he loves to come up with his own wild recipes.
"There's a lot of different recipes I invent," he said, adding that meat is a staple in most of his concoctions.
Twice a month, Kid Quest hosts "Dinner and a Movie," a cooking class, followed by a movie, that helps to teach children about nutrition in a social environment. The organization, which began in 2004 as an offshoot of Balance4Kids, hosts more than a dozen activities aimed at providing social opportunities for children with disabilities ages 4 to 12 in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties.
Colleen Russell, 24, is one of visionaries behind Kid Quest and is now a program manager. She said that for many Kid Quest children, these events are the social highlight of the week.
The program is all-inclusive and children, regardless of their abilities, are encouraged to attend classes, said Russell, who began envisioning Kid Quest while working as an instructional aide for Balance4kids.
"We feel like the kids with disabilities have a lot to teach the kids that don't and vice versa," she said. "They're all friends, they all come together."
The group has regular activities such as rock-climbing and horseback-riding, but Russell said they also take suggestions from the children, which has lead to some of the more adventurous outings, such as taking a ride in a Cessna.
Russell said she feels that everyone has abilities, gifts and disabilities, and that Kid Quest aims at allowing all children to experience the world and find their place in it.
"These kids are just incredible, and we want to give them the opportunity to express themselves," she said.
The group received its first grant in October 2005, which has allowed the program to expand to a staff of about 10, and from about six children in 2004, to more than 80 today. The nonprofit recently received a building grant and is now looking for a facility to call its own.
Victoria George, co-founder and executive director of Balance4kids, said receiving the building grant was an emotional experience.
"I think I cried for three days," she said.
George, whose background includes providing private therapy for children with disabilities, began working with the Soquel Unified School District in 1999, and soon after, she and members of the district began holding fundraisers to help special education teachers fund enrichment programs. In 2003, the CELPA director of the Soquel School District asked George if she'd be interested in taking her involvement to the next level by providing staff for special education classrooms.
"I thought it would be something I could do," she said.
The program now provides the staff, including instructional aides and assistants as well as professionals who specialize in certain areas such as working with blind and deaf children, for 11 districts in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties.
When Russell, along with co-founder Cate Dorr, approached George with the idea of Kid Quest, she said she was behind it right away. As the mother of twins with special needs, George said she said knows the community is in need of programs geared for children of all abilities.
"I thought it was a fabulous idea — something I'd want my kids to be a part of," she said.
In addition to designated rooms for art, music and specialty workshops, the new facility will receive help from Life Lab, a UC Santa Cruz-based organization that provides gardens and science programs for local schools, she said.
"The center, more than anything, is a place for them to call their own," she said.
George said many members of the Kid Quest staff are university students or recent graduates who studied special education or psychology. These are the innovators who bring new ideas to the table, she said.
"They're a perfect balance for who we are," she said. "It just makes a lot of sense to support them in this community. It's a symbiotic relationship."
She said staff members can relate to the children, and that they strive to provide them with opportunities to express themselves.
"They don't see the child with the disability, they see the child inside," she said. "That's when the magic starts to happen. Their personalities come out, their gifts come out and they can find themselves in the world."
In addition to Kid Quest, the organization has also launched Club Quest, which is for older children. George said she wouldn't be surprised if Kid Quest and Club Quest go nationwide because of their consistent formats.
"It's a program that's really needed," she said.
She said that while Santa Cruz County offers a variety of children's programs, many children with special needs don't feel like they fit in. Kid Quest offers children a place where they can socialize and express themselves without the fear of standing out.
"I love what I do," she said. "I love all of the programs that are evolving out of Balance; they benefit so many kids, they benefit my kids, so much."
Nichole Griffin, 24, is also a program manager and helps run Kid Quest. She's worked with children with special needs since she was about 10, when she began caring for a friend's brother who was diagnosed with autism. She went on to work for New Brighton and Santa Cruz Gardens schools, where she and Russell met while both working as instructional aides.
Griffin said she's always known that this would be the field she would work in.
"It's thrilling, I absolutely love it," she said. "I knew this was just my calling."
She said that while the work can sometimes be physically demanding, and the "power battles" emotionally draining, it's worth the hard work.
"If something goes wrong, work through it," she said. "They can trust you."
For Janet Edwards, Danny's mother, Kid Quest has been a safe place for her son to just be himself.
"It's nice to see him have fun," she said.
Danny, who was diagnosed with autism when he was about 21/2, participates in most of the monthly activities, and although he doesn't much care for the rock-climbing, he still goes to the events to hang out, she said.
Shaun Russell, Colleen's sister, said they grew up with a mother who worked as an assistant with a special education class. For them, children were children, regardless of their abilities.
"It kind of prepared us for this," she said.
Russell works with Kid Quest as well as the Listen Foundation, and has experience with children with autism and special needs. She said there's nothing quite like seeing a child come out of their shell and interact with the world, and Kid Quest provides that opportunity.
"It's amazing," she said. "It really gets kids involved with each other in a unique way."
Contact Justine DaCosta at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kid Quest follows a monthly calendar that includes cooking classes (dinner and a movie)
4-8:30 p.m. on the second and fourth Fridays of the month; rock climbing on the third Monday of the month; and horseback riding on the fourth Saturday of the month.
Contact them at 421-9159 or balance4kids.org.