Thursday, July 1, 2021 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews
If these last few years have been tough for people who don’t have developmental disabilities, just imagine what they’ve been like for those people who do.
That’s a reality that often gets lost in the larger narrative about the pandemic’s impact on young people’s ability to learn and socialize, said key members of the Answer Inc., the popular Proviso Township nonprofit dedicated to servicing families affected by autism and other developmental disabilities.
Maywood resident Debra Vines, the Answer’s founder and CEO, said during a recent interview that her organization’s services are perhaps more needed than ever, particularly for individuals who need the stability of routine physical relationships.
Vines started the organization after her adult son, Jason, was born with autism and she needed specialized services. Noticing that those services weren’t readily available in Proviso Township, Vines eventually turned herself into an advocate for her son and other families dealing with developmental disabilities.
“Before the pandemic, Jason was going to a day program,’ Vines said. “He hasn’t been to a day program in over a year. At first, he was really discombobulated. You know, ‘What do I do now?’”
Vines said her son now has gotten extremely comfortable accompanying her to her Forest Park office most days, where she executes the nonprofit’s numerous events, initiatives and programs.
Throughout the pandemic, the Answer continued to provide its critical programming to the roughly 50 participants who utilize its services, Vines said.
The organization hosts a range of initiatives, such as a 10-week exercise, dance and nutrition program called Music N Me for children and adults with developmental challenges.
The nonprofit’s Spectrum University provides developmentally challenged individuals with writing, reading, math, social and life skills.
In addition, the organization provides training to first responders and other people on how to interact with individuals with developmental disabilities. During the pandemic, some of that training took place virtually while some took place in person.
Amanda Toles, an executive assistant with the Answer, said her son has ADHD and benefits from the nonprofit’s services, which often supplement the resources that he gets in school.
“A lot of virtual learning for both parents and kids was very difficult, especially for ones who have younger kids,” Toles said.
“My son is 15 and, for the most part, I can tell him what to do,” she added, “but a lot of parents who have younger kids who are very low-functioning — I can only imagine the struggles they had trying to make sure the child does what they need to do, especially parents who were working from home and taking of care of special needs children.”
Dana Bryant, the Answer’s program coordinator, recalled going to Vines for help with her special needs daughter roughly five years ago.
Bryant, whose daughter is now 11, said navigating through the various school resources designed to serve special needs students was confusing, at best.
Dana Bryant, Amanda Toles and Debra Vines in the Answer Inc.’s Forest Park offices. | File
“They gave me so much misinformation,” Bryant recalled. “They wouldn’t even allow my child’s therapist to come in to express what she had.”
That confusion and chaos, pre-pandemic, has only been exacerbated as COVID-19 disrupted many people’s daily lives, the women said.
To stave off the chaos, the Answer got creative, Vines said. They hosted a variety of virtual events, including a special needs expo, an online gym shoe ball, a virtual comedy show and they still put on their annual walkathon. This year, the latter event, which constitutes one of the nonprofit’s largest fundraisers, generated roughly $32,000 that will go toward sponsoring a weeklong trip to California for the Answer’s participants, Vine said.
Most of the nonprofit’s staple programming was also done remotely, but the Answer conducted regular wellbeing checks and grocery drop-offs. The women also made referrals to their participants for counseling services.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year, the Answer initiated a public awareness campaign and local social justice movement called “I’m Not Just Black, I’m Autistic.”
“Right after George Floyd was murdered, I started about all of the things that were happening — the social unrest with the disability community,” she said.
“It’s been so many murders by the police of people who have disabilities and they aren’t getting the attention they need,” Vines explained. “So we started this movement. We have t-shirts [with the mantra] and started working with Loyola Law School students to identify organizations that have needs in the community.”
But now, as pandemic restrictions ease, the nonprofit is ready to start offering its services in person again. Vines — fresh off a campaign for village trustee, which she only lost by a coin toss — said she also has plans for expanding the Answer’s services while staying involved in her local community.
Debra Vines’s son, Jason, wearing an “I’m Not Just Black, I’m Autistic” t-shirt, which was part of a social awareness campaign the nonprofit launched after George Floyd’s death. | Provided
Recently, the nonprofit received a $10,000 grant from the Chicago Foundation for Women Giving Circle that will help fund the Answer’s Spectrum Socialite Program, an initiative designed to provide girls on the autistic spectrum with training in etiquette, social skills, public dining and maintaining healthy relationships.
Vines said she would like to start a special needs commission in Maywood, in order to mobilize more resources and awareness to support residents with disabilities and special needs.
“We hope to partner with Maywood in order to move the village forward as it relates to the special needs community,” Vines said.
For more information on the Answer Inc., visit: theanswerinc.org/.