By Tina Meier-Nowell, ASD Consultant, Northwest Regional Education Service District (NWRESD)
Arriving right at 5 p.m. at the main floor of Berglund Hall at Pacific University with my six-year-old daughter, I am joined by other friendly families ready for the monthly get-together of the Forest Grove ASO Game Club. We have our items to share for the potluck in hand and proceed to a table to pay our $1 per-child donation to Kristy McGinnis, one of the coordinators. Next, we fill out name tags and let our kids have a chance to guess how many candies are in various containers in hopes they will get the closest number and win the contents.
After getting signed in, we continued down the hall to a small open area with tables where families place their items for the pot luck. Chairs go around the perimeter of the area, creating a nice space for parents to converse. Participants are all expected to bring something to share so that parents who attend don’t have to worry about dinner for the night, which is helpful after a long week of school and work.
Around the corner is a large classroom with tables set up with a variety of activities ranging from card and board games, drawing and coloring materials and sensory play activities. In addition, a video game console is set up and a Mario Brothers game is projected onto a big screen where up to four kids can play at a time. A couple of rooms down, a movie is being projected onto another screen for children to watch. Everyone is engaged in an activity and enjoying themselves.
The most notable thing about the Game Club is the relaxed and welcoming atmosphere. Parents, young children and teens with ASD, and their siblings chat, eat, play and interact in a family-like atmosphere. The Game Club began in 2009 by a mother of a son with ASD, Candie, who was the Autism Society of Oregon representative for the local area. Wanting to create an opportunity for children like her son to play and socialize with peers, she contacted McGinnis, the special education coordinator of the School of Teaching and Learning at Pacific University (and fellow mom of a son with ASD). She wanted to see if the university would be willing to donate a meeting space for the group to get together monthly during the school year. Since its inception, Pacific University has been generously donating meeting space for the group and in addition to covering the cost of the ASO’s insurance premium for the space. Outside of the school year, the Game Club holds a mid-summer picnic as an opportunity for the families to connect as well.
Families come from near and far to attend Game Night because their children enjoy themselves so much and the parents and siblings enjoy the opportunity to get together with others with similar experiences. While there, I met Cindy, a mother who has been attending the Game Club since the beginning. She shared that attending is great fun and almost her whole family comes regularly. Also, she remarked how the non-ASD siblings have formed great friendships with each other and that they, too, enjoy the accepting nature of the group. The volunteers who help with Game Club free up the parents to converse, relax and provide support and resources to each other on topics such as transition, IEPs and more.
The volunteers are an important component of the success of the club. They allow parents the freedom to converse and interact with each other while their children with ASD can have supervision and friendly interaction. Typically the volunteers are students from various Pacific University programs and Forest Grove High School’s Partners program; however, volunteers from other organizations, such as high school service groups, have also provided the much needed support with set up, take down and interaction with the young people who attend. The Forest Grove Game Club’s model has even been included in a special education textbook, called Supporting Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Recreation by Phyllis Coyne and Ann Fullerton of Portland State University. The description of the Game Club highlights the group’s structure and strengths, including the utilization of the volunteers who make it possible for parents to have opportunities to interact and support each other.
In addition to volunteerism, the Game Club is sustained by the low cost: $1 per child fee, as well as donations. It is also co-sponsored by the ASO, College of Education (COE) and School of Teaching and Learning at Pacific University. McGinnis also said those who participate in the annual ASO Walk-a-Thon can specifically earmark the monies they raise for the Forest Grove ASO Game Club. Anonymous donations from the Walk have allowed them to purchase gift cards to use for items benefitting the Game Club.
Candie, the Game Club’s founder moved out-of-state shortly after the club began. Since then, three mothers have been integral in coordinating the group for the past few years: Manuela Gutzmann, McGinnis and Mindy Weigand. Tobi Rates is the ASO executive director and represents the organization for the Game Club, as well as is a participating parent in the group. Manuela remarked that the families have become quite bonded and that it has been a joy to see all of the children who have attended over the years grow and change. From attending my first Game Club night, the warmth and friendliness of the participants was evident, as was their sincerity in welcoming new families to attend.
By around 8 p.m., parents began to help clean up the meeting areas and my daughter heard her name called—she had guessed the closest amount in one of the candy boxes! She wasn’t the only one who left with a smile on her face that night and, like many others, she left in anticipation of the next Game Club meeting.
If you are interested in more information on attending with your family or in volunteering, the Game Club has information on the Autism Society of Oregon’s website and Facebook. You can also click here for a link to an electronic flyer.