Alexandra Jackman learned something important about the world when she was nine years old. Now 16 and a high school junior in Westfield, NJ, Jackman was at a sleepaway family camp in Vermont that summer when she had an epiphany.
“There was a girl there named Jamie who always sat by herself with her aide at lunch,” she recalled. “I thought she just wanted to be alone. One day I went up and asked if I could join them and her aide said yes.”
That’s when Jackman found out that Jamie had cerebral palsy and couldn’t speak. “She used hand signals. We started hanging out and became good friends. I realized that if I hadn’t approached her, I would have missed out on a big opportunity. I saw that when a person has special needs, it isn’t who they are, it’s what they have. It’s up to us to see them as a whole person.”
Understanding that became the impetus for Jackman to be involved with the special needs community, first supporting programming with an organization called Autism Family Times and now as the leader and coordinator of a community based, social skills group for teenagers and young adults with special needs called Teen Night Out.
Jackman, her mom and a group of volunteers from local middle and high schools run the monthly socials with the sponsorship of Intensive Therapeutics of West Caldwell, a non-profit that provides group and individual occupational therapy services to children with special needs. Held at the community center at Forest Road Park in Fanwood, the themed parties draw 30-40 attendees representing a spectrum of special needs, from autism and down syndrome to other types of developmental and physical challenges.
“I can’t even express how happy I am when it’s Teen Night Out,” said the enthusiastic teenager. “We usually have a theme, like maybe a hoe down, with bandanas and country music. There is an annual talent show in January that’s just amazing. It’s all about creating bridges.”
The way Jackman sees it, young people navigating special needs have a lot on their plate to just manage day to day, maintain. Social time often goes by the wayside. “This is a place where everyone can be themselves. It’s an honest place, judgment free.”
Jackman understands that if a person hasn’t been exposed to someone with special needs, it might be a bit intimidating. “I don’t blame people if they are hesitant at first. When I see someone with a challenge I don’t know about, it can be scary.
“But I’ve learned there’s a lot more to a person than we might think.” She’s also learned leadership and organizational skills along the way. “I love working with this community so much – I get so much back.” Although she’s not sure of her career path just yet, one thing is for certain. “This community will always be a part of my life.”