Tribune-Courier News Reporter
Parents of children with special needs often feel like there are not enough options when it comes to services and programs designed specifically to engage their children, which is why Debbie Gadlage helped start the SODA POP Activity Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to individuals with special needs.
Gadlage, Director of the SODA POP Activity Center, which stands for “Society of Differently Abled Populations,” said she decided to open the center when her daughter Amanda, who has special needs, turned 21 in February and aged out of the public school system’s special needs program.
“My daughter requires certain medicines that disqualify her from attending at the (Marshall County) Exceptional Center,” she said. “After she aged out of public school there was absolutely nowhere for her to go. The activity center provides another choice for those with special needs who don’t qualify for community services or who have aged out of the public school’s program.”
The activity center opened on June 9 to five eager participants who were offered the opportunity to take part in pre-planned, organized learning activities such as life skills, music, electronics, container gardening and crafts.
Gadlage said the center has received a positive response from the community in the form of donated items and has been encouraged by the kind words of leaders throughout the community.
“This project has reached the ears of a lot of people and there have been several that have volunteered their time to get the ball rolling on this,” she said. “This center will provide the stimulation and engagement among participants that they might not have had otherwise.”
Currently the center has one activity guide, a full-time staff member that organizes the day’s events, and two volunteers that help manage participants.
Gadlage said she would hire other staff and accept other volunteers as more participants begin using the center.
“At full capacity we will have about 15 participants,” she said. “During this first three-week session we plan on only having five participants and then expanding from that point.”
The activity center is a tuition-based program that costs $100 per week and is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
“We didn’t want to make families pay for the services, but we will need to be able to pay the staff and to pay for use of the building,” she said.
The activity center is adjacent to DeFew’s Custom Painting and Body Shop located on US Hwy 68 across from Marshall County High School.
Gadlage said with the help of the community the activity center could be a great alternative to other public services that serve participants with special needs.
“We want the community to get involved too – maybe a music teacher could come teach a course – a dentist could come speak about oral hygiene – we’re looking for all kinds of opportunities to broaden our participant’s minds,” she said.
While the center is focusing on morning sessions now, Gadlage said when school resumes in the fall the activity center will also be offering an after school session from 3 to 6 p.m.
“We’re going to expand our services as necessary in anticipation of the needs of our community,” she said.
Two years ago Gadlage said the center was just an idea, but after she and her friends started hosting a summer program for participants with special needs at a local church they realized there was an unmet need in the community.
The summer program was hosted out of the First Missionary Baptist Church, but Gadlage said it quickly became evident the church would not be able to serve the community full time.
“It’s been a vision for two years and now we’ve made it happen,” she said. “I’m just glad we can serve the community.”
For more information regarding the SODA POP Activity Center call 270-205-1900.