By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger
BETTENDORF — What started out as a summer camp for children with disabilities has grown to year-round programs for children and young adults with disabilities and their families.
Founders Mark and Vinnie Smith and Dave and Joanie Steil each had a child with special needs, which inspired them to open Hand-in-Hand. “We talked about our dreams,” Mark Smith said. “Our dreams then grew to what we are today thanks to input from parents.”
Smith says Hand in Hand’s mission is to create fun, inclusive recreational and learning experiences for children and young adults with disabilities. Hand in Hand also provides a safe place for parents to take their child with disabilities while the parents spend time with other children they may have.
Camp Hand in Hand initially offered 40 spots for a week-long, daytime only camp. “We hoped some would come,” Smith laughed. At the time he was working at the YMCA, where registration for the summer camp took place. When he arrived early at work the first day of registration, “we already were filled. We made a promise (to parents) to do more.”
Following the successful camp, the Smiths and Steils explored other opportunities to benefit families. “We grew step by step,” Smith said. “Parents would ask for fitness programs, art and overnight programs. There were so many suggestions.”
Hand in Hand continues to offer its summer camp – two, weeklong sessions. “We offer horseback riding, fishing, swimming and so much more. It’s rigorous, there’s lots of walking and no air conditioning, but there’s a lot of energy from our volunteers and participants.”
Year-round at its facility at 3860 Middle Road in Bettendorf, Hand in Hand offers childcare, preschool and programming after school and during breaks for school-age children. Seasonal, weekend and evening programs also take place.
The People with Purpose program, for adults 18 and older, helps participants gain social engagement skills and participate in the Quad-City community. This includes volunteer opportunities, Smith said.
The facility’s main level includes the daycare, preschool, kitchen and some interactive rooms. The lower level houses after-school programming. Students play games, perform dramatic plays, engage in social activities and more. Student artwork adorns the lower-level hallway, which leads to offices and a conference room.
The hallway features an “Inspiration Studio Wall of Fame” surrounded by framed artwork. Several offices and the conference room hold even more artwork. “This shows the unique skills and abilities of many of our children and families,” Smith said.
Molly Steil Rowland serves as Hand in Hand’s Home Community Based Service coordinator. Her cousin Tessa, David and Joanie Steil’s daughter, “was an inspiration for the program. I knew what Hand in Hand offered and I wanted to work there.” Rowland has been with Hand in Hand for 18 years.
“I love working with individuals with disabilities and their various abilities,” she said. “We had a very small, very humble beginning. We have grown due to our clients.”
Some of the popular programs, especially with high school students, are movie night every other Friday; Food, Friends and Fun in which participants prepare and eat a meal together; fitness activities such as taekwondo, bowling and swimming; and building skills for the future.
“All of our programs provide a social and fun recreational experience and give families some time to spend together and not worry about their youth with a special need. Families can go out and have fun and know their child is in a safe environment,” Rowland said.
Christa Andersen’s son Nathan has been at Hand in Hand for eight years. Now 15, he participates in after-school activities and in many evening and weekend programs. Prior to Hand in Hand, the family had someone to help care for Nathan, but he didn’t fit in with other children. “When we found Hand in Hand, a weight was lifted off our shoulders. They understood his needs and he is safe. I never have to worry.”
She said Nathan has a condition that makes it difficult at times to communicate or comprehend. In addition, he cannot regulate his body temperature and has severe anxiety. “The doctors told us he would never walk or talk. Now we can’t get him to stop talking,” Andersen laughed.
Nathan said he likes to come to Hand in Hand to “hang out with friends.” His favorite activity is movie night, followed by teen night.
“I like to be on stage,” he told The Catholic Messenger. He enjoys dramatic plays at Hand in Hand and recently participated in a Penguin Project production of “The Lion King.”
Penguin Project, a national project, is offered through Augustana College and the Center for Living Arts in Rock Island, Illinois. Many youths from Hand in Hand participate in the program, Smith said.
Hand in Hand now is gearing up for its annual family fair that showcases resources for families. The fair takes place March 28 from 9:30 a.m. to noon at Children’s Therapy Center, 4450 48th Ave. Ct., Rock Island.
As Hand in Hand celebrates 20 years, Smith will step down as CEO on May 1. Angie Kendall has been named his successor. “Angie’s passion about our mission and the families we serve makes her an excellent choice to lead Hand in Hand in the future,” Board President John Byrne said. “Her passion for collaboration and innovation paints an inspiring vision for this organization as we grow in the future.”
Kendall said, “My career has been dedicated to advocating for young children and their families. I’m very excited to bring my experiences and leadership skills to this new opportunity.”