Expressions of a BraveHeart give children, teens a place to belong, make friends
By Alison James
Expressions of a BraveHeart isn’t just some benign program for children with disabilities. It’s a “multi-dimensional service community” and “a place to gather – like a club, where they (can) be part of a group.”
That’s in the words of founder and director Angie Burque and co-director Dr. Danilea Werner, who, along with 70-75 student volunteers, have run the BraveHearts group since its inception in 2010.
“One of the things (Angie) saw was that there was a need in the community for teens with moderate to severe disabilities as they got older to have a place to gather – like a club, where they could be part of a group,” Werner said. “That was missing. So she worked with trying to figure out what to do and where to do it … She created the framework and worked with other professors in different departments here and had them review it and said, ‘This is kind of what we’re thinking. We want to use Auburn students as the coaches and have the teens come and do this so they have a place – a club, a place of their own.”
Burque had a unique view into what might be needed for children with special needs and their families – her son has special needs. She wanted, at least in part, a group where teens could build relationships outside their families.
“For a lot of these kids, for them to do anything … a parent or family member is going to be right there with them,” Burque said. “All the things that are out there are wonderful; it’s just we saw a need and feel a need to help develop really quality programming and experience they can latch onto and be a part of and belong to.”
With input from other professors and a plan firmly in place, and under the sponsorship of of the Auburn University Social Work Program and the Opelika Sportsplex, BraveHearts got off the ground in 2010 with a small group.
It works like this: teen participants are able to choose two of the three art classes during each Bravehearts session – the program is held for an hour and a half twice a month in the spring and fall. Students can choose from art, music or dance. Burque said the decision to let the students choose two of three classes, instead of rotating every participant among all three options, was all about self-empowerment.
“We made the sign in list so they can sign their name in and pick where they’re going,” Burque said. “If they decide they’re going somewhere else, no one is going to be standing at the door saying, ‘You said you were going to art class first, so you can’t come in here.’ It’s about embracing joy, finding joy, and we want to help them on their journey toward that.”
That initial small group has only continued to grow, and Werner said they have been able to see how essential a program like this is to the growth and self-discovery of teens with disabilities.
“It builds friendships. It increases your ability to socialize, be part of the community and feel like you fit and to build your identity,” Werner said. “Just because our teenagers have disabilities doesn’t mean they don’t go through all the same things that we go through as a teenager.”
Werner got involved during the second semester of the program with the intention of making participation in BraveHearts a required component for students in one of her classes – a requirement Burque imposes in one of her classes as well.
“The more I went, the more we grew our partnership and became involved,” Werner said. “Now even when I don’t teach that class, I’m still involved as co-director and wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Emphatic enthusiasm about BraveHearts isn’t unique to Burque and Werner. Auburn University student volunteers also grow attached to the program and the participants they come to know.
“It was a really great experience,” said Hanna Bjork, junior in social work. “It’s a relationship that would not be formed if you weren’t working with someone week after week.”
Each teen participant is assigned two or three student volunteer coaches. Bjork worked with a participant named Laney.
“She definitely loved arts and crafts – we probably would spend most of our time there,” Bjork said. “I got to learn so much about her just by being with her family – the dynamic between her and her brothers and her mom was just amazing.”
Bjork said although she was pretty comfortable working with BraveHearts, some of her friends felt more out of their element but quickly became accustomed to the situations. Burque said that’s one thing they hope volunteers will take from the program – becoming more comfortable around people with disabilities.
“We want future social workers and teachers and rehab counselors and nurses and engineers who are going to be sitting next to them in church on Sunday or Saturday to be a little more comfortable and a little less weirded out, and they’re OK to say, ‘Hi.’ And there may be something that comes back, and even if there isn’t something that comes back, you know there’s somebody there, and they see you.”
BraveHearts participation is parent driven, and the rules are minimal. A child can join at any point during the semester, there is no cost, and there are no guidelines as to which children qualify. Burque said they also avoid requiring a lot of paperwork from parents.
“That’s their life already,” Burque said. “They have a hundred more things to do in a week … This is different. We don’t have boxes for people to fit in … If you see this program and you want to give it a shot – if you think your child might benefit from it – then come.”
And Bjork encouraged students to sign up to be a coach.
“I would definitely encourage someone to volunteer,” Bjork said. “You get to really become close with some of your own peers at Auburn … and then you get to form a one-to-one friendship with someone who is in the community you call your home.
“You get a lot out of it,” Bjork continued. “You learn a lot about yourself.”
Debra Knitter’s daughter Dani is one program participant. Knitter said although she wasn’t sure about BraveHearts at first, it has been a great opportunity for Dani, who has pachygyria, which impacts her cognitively.
“She’s been doing it now for two years,” Knitter said. “She loves it. What she loves the most is the fact that she loves Auburn students, so being able to have two or three buddies just for her – she thinks is pretty awesome.
For Dani, Knitter said the class has fostered a love of photography and given her the opportunity for some independence.
“It’s nice to be able to know it’s just for her,” Knitter said. “I don’t even worry about her when she’s there. That’s huge. I know for a good hour and a half she is totally being pampered and given focus. It’s very comforting as a parent to know she’s in great hands.”
Expressions of a BraveHeart is open to those with disabilities age 13-22 – both Lee County residents and those outside Lee County. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org.