Monday, December 13, 2010

In Oklahoma City, Wings program helps developmentally disabled adults to soar

From The Daily Oklahoman. In the picture, volunteer Jill Webb, center, gives a hug to James Price, left, and Preston Olson at Wings, a non-profit program for developmentally disabled adults.

Preston Olson, 23, is extremely outgoing and friendly. He rarely leaves a place without having made several new friends. If you need a hug, he's your man. If you're feeling down, his warm smile can lighten your gloom.

Preston lives at home with his parents, Gary and Shouna Olson, in Edmond. He'd probably like to get a place of his own, but he lacks the skills he needs to care for himself properly. Preston has Down syndrome and may never lead what some people would consider a “normal” life.

But that doesn't seem to daunt Preston. Nor does it seem to faze the nine other developmentally disabled adults that Preston spends time with each week. All are part of a day program for adults with special needs. The faith-based program, called Wings, is still in its infancy but already has figuratively given its participants just that — wings to soar to new heights.

“The big picture of Wings is to provide social, vocational and residential opportunities for adults with special needs,” said Wynter Olson-Casallas, Wings program director and Preston's sister.

The organization offers a day program Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and currently has 10 students, or artists, as they're referred to by Olson, and the program's many volunteers.

During their four-hour days at Wings, the artists create gift cards, magnets and frames to sell in their gift shop. They learn essential cooking, life and social skills. And they sing and play handbells in the “Joyful Sound” choir at Henderson Hills Baptist Church. Perhaps most importantly, they make close friends with whom they pray, play and share the challenges faced as adults with special needs.

“A lot of them come in, and they're not really socially interactive with other people,” said Karla Boone, one of the program's volunteers. “They're afraid to try new things or try a different way of doing something. This program has taught them to socialize more, to communicate more with others. We kind of say if you can't do something this way, let's figure out a way you can do it.”

It's that attitude of finding a way despite obstacles that is leading the Wings program slowly from its meager beginnings, housed in an office building in northwest Oklahoma City, into a much bigger future. An immediate goal of the organization is to expand the day program to full days, five days per week.

The organization recently acquired 50 acres in Logan County, and as soon as funding permits, will break ground on a permanent community where people like Preston can live, work and socialize. Wynter Olson-Casallas and the other Wings board members envision the community to be a place of beauty with a variety of industries that will be self-sustaining and help the residents who call it home to thrive, despite their developmental challenges.

“I can't even envision Preston living somewhere else besides with us,” said Gary Olson, Preston's father. “But the problem is, I've got to think of his best interests, so if something happens to us, where is he going to be so he can live and thrive and have productive work?”

This is a concern shared by nearly all parents of developmentally disabled children and adults. When immediate family is gone, what will become of the children and adults who depend on them?

“A student in the choir a few years ago, his only living relative had died,” Gary Olson said. “His father had made no plans, and he got shipped off to another state where he didn't know the family, didn't know anybody. That's terrible. That's because a lack of planning. So we have to plan ahead. Even if it doesn't feel good, we have to plan ahead.”

A well-designed concept has been rendered for the community that will include residences for men and women, vocational and business centers, a chapel, recreational opportunities and administrative offices. Now all Wings lacks to bring it to fruition is money. And lots of it. The board of directors estimates Phase One of the community plan will cost about $7 million.

Acquiring the land was a significant milestone toward the final goal but only a drop in the bucket compared to what it will take to see the community realized.

Currently, Wings operates solely from private funding and donations.