When students who have disabilities finish high school at the age of 21, there are very few options. Developing and Nurturing Independence (DANI) was created in 2006 to assist with families as they help their children transition to the next chapter. Co-founded by Susie Sokol and Kathy Laszlo, parents of children who have disabilities, DANI began as a parent advocacy group and later became a registered charity.
Located in Thornhill, Ontario, the parent driven organization aims to “create opportunities for adults with physical and/or cognitive challenges so that they can participate fully as valued members of the community and enjoy a meaningful and dignified quality of life.”
The organization supports varied programming from their daytime program, to helping with employment, to social events, and the music and arts programs.
To learn how DANI sets out to achieve their mandate and innovative programs, I spoke with the co-founder Sokol.
The one phrase that comes to people’s minds to describe DANI is the “gold standard.” How have you earned that reputation?
DANI is a parent driven organization and that fact alone already sets us apart. We wanted to continue with skills learned at school while teaching new essential life and practical skills. DANI, is an innovative, very unique and diverse organization that is designed to enhance the strengths of each participant.
The day program offers vocational training, educational classes, practical and life skills, recreational and social opportunities as well as employment opportunities that would collectively lead to as much independence as possible while cultivating community connections. Our staff is integral to our network and they continuously raise the bar wherever possible. They have been instrumental in attaining our success.
How are you coping with the COVID-19 pandemic?
DANI is now open and has had an amazing re-entry. In accordance with our health consultant, we opened with just five adults in the morning and five different adults in the afternoon. Plexiglass divides their desks, the room is continuously sanitized, a related health questionnaire is answered before the day begins, and temperatures are taken before they enter.
While most offices, comparable programs, restaurants and public sites continue to lock down, DANI has expanded. We have taken on a second location and we are extremely fortunate and worked very diligently to create a healthy and safe environment for our participants to return to both the Clark and Magnetic campuses. The participants are thrilled to see their friends and staff and return to the warmth and comfort at DANI.
Describe a usual day at DANI before the pandemic.
When you entered the DANI Centre, it was a busy hub of activity but the atmosphere is warm and dynamic. Participants, staff and students from colleges and universities, who are being mentored by our staff, have begun their very organized day. Volunteers are baking, people are buying gifts and the aroma of delicious food being prepared by our professional chefs (COR) wafts through the building.
The day program begins with prayers, which includes a sweet and honest grateful circle. After that, classes continue with each participant attending their individually assigned appropriate course. DANI offers cooking, journalism, book study, wellness, literacy, daily skills, creating goals, budgeting, music, and more. Drama and art classes are held as a group to prepare for the professional annual play, performed at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts, and annual art show which evolved into DANI Fine Lines, the selling of art pieces.
Social enterprise is an important feature of DANI. Can you describe that aspect of the programming?
Social enterprise is a business with social relevance. Revenue is earned while the participants acquire essential vocational skills. Some work at the DANI Centre and others gain employment elsewhere. DANI has a daily café (Monday-Thursday) which also acts as an event centre for family life cycle celebrations or corporate functions. Another arm of the social enterprise, POP UP lunch, involves a crew that sets up lunch items at pre-designated offices, from our kosher certified kitchen. This opportunity allows the critical practice of financial, organizational, and social skills while meeting the community. DANI also sells personal or corporate gifts as well as holiday and presents for special occasions.
Who are the partnerships?
One of our core beliefs is the importance of community connections. Over the years, we have had various combined programs with schools, organizations, synagogues, camps, and social groups and now have close to 80 community partnerships. In addition, we have had successful POP UP launches at various offices throughout the GTA.
And tell me about the volunteers. . .
We are fortunate to have over 130 dedicated volunteers who keep our centre thriving through assistance in administration and other essential roles. Volunteers have created close to 800 Rosh Hashana gifts annually that incorporate our baking. Some crochet clothes for teddy bears, blankets to sell as baby gifts, or bake thousands of cookies that are packaged in baskets and sold in the gift store.
I felt a “we can do it too” advocacy attitude on behalf of the participants when I visited DANI.
Our tagline is “We believe that all people can achieve.” Our participants want the same opportunities as their parents, peers or siblings; a job, a home, and friends. At DANI, they are gently guided to reach beyond expectation. All they need is support and an opportunity.
What’s next for DANI?
What an incredible time to grow in the midst of the pandemic. Our second site allows us to accommodate our participants safely and meticulously. Unfortunately, the need for our program is growing and we hope to increase our number of participants when the time is safe and appropriate.
Header image courtesy of DANI.
David Wintre has taken on different roles in his life. He’s been a businessperson, University lecturer, Uber driver, and occasional writer both to and for Jewish online newspapers and magazines.