The Sparrow Project Gives Wings to Moore's Most Special CitizensMay 02, 2022
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE SPARROW PROJECT
Just over six years ago, Allison Richey wondered what might be next for her special needs daughter, Casey. This was after Casey had graduated from Moore Public Schools a few years before.
"From the top down, Moore Public Schools has this amazing commitment to our kids," said Richey. "She and I had been home about three years with not many options for her to follow after graduation."
Richey had been attending a Bible study for mothers of children with special needs, and an idea formed in her mind.
"I got a pretty good nudge from my husband that got me moving on the idea of creating something for Casey and kids like her that would provide social interaction along with cool, age-appropriate activities," said Richey.
It didn't take long for Richey to connect with Marilyn DiSalvatore, who was also wondering what to do for her two daughters, one on the autism spectrum and one with Down Syndrome.
"When these kids graduate high school, it's like they hit a brick wall," said DiSalvatore. "There are so many things for them to get involved in during school, but once they're out, there's not enough support and services for them socially."
Together, the two mothers came up with a simple idea to provide something that could fill that space. The Sparrow Project, a non-profit, faith-based organization, was born with roots in a passage from Matthew 10:
"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father's care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows."
"We launched our first class in April 2016," said Richey. "We had four young ladies in the group, and now we are here in April of 2022, and we have around 50 involved in the program."
DiSalvatore says it didn't take long for parents to recognize the value of this new program in their children's lives as well.
"In our conversations with people, they all really understood what our kids were going through," said DiSalvatore. "The supported social interaction we were able to provide through The Sparrow Project profoundly met their needs."
So profound that the organization found it snowballing. Fortunately, there was plenty of support from the Moore community.
"We started in our homes," said DiSalvatore, "Then we went to St. Andrew's Church and outgrew that. So, we went to MACU and outgrew that as well."
The Sparrow Project spent some time in a shared space at Southmoore High School before finally settling in a dedicated space at Southridge High School. Richey relied on her background in adult education and personal enrichment classes to put together a plan that would work for "The Sparrows," as they affectionately came to be called. Those activities are nothing like the gluing-macaroni-to-a-piece-of-paper projects some folks imagine.
"We follow the school calendar in our planning," said Richey. "In terms of our class schedule, we meet every Wednesday and Friday from 10:00 a.m. until noon. We do a wide variety of things including fitness, social interaction, gardening, bowling, entertainment, and some pretty elaborate crafts projects and activities."
It also includes regular trips over to the Moore Public Schools Administration building to work shredding documents. Those trips and other activities have led The Sparrow Project's leadership team to begin meeting and planning strategically about where the organization goes.
"At first, job skills weren't really a big thing for us," said DiSalvatore. "Now we're beginning to see that maybe it can be. There's also the idea of partnering with people in Moore to help integrate our kids into the community in different ways."
In the meantime, The Sparrow Project is accomplishing beautiful things in the lives of those it serves.
Beth Kidd's son, Will, is one of those people. Kidd originally moved to Moore for the special education programs in the schools. Those programs were fantastic, as was the inclusion and acceptance the family experienced in Moore. She says Will graduated in 2018 and quickly experienced the "brick wall" that DiSalvatore mentioned. Fortunately, The Sparrow Project was there to fill in the gap.
"He's very sociable, which gives him something he really gets excited about," said Kidd. "Not only does he get to see some of his old friends from school, but he also meets new friends, which keeps them active in the community. He's excited about their upcoming trip to the OKC Dodgers game."
As important as The Sparrow Project is for The Sparrows, it also provides some much-needed help to the parents of The Sparrows.
"When your special needs children become adults, it can become a bit overwhelming at times," said Kidd. "You're still the provider, but many adults also have to work. So, Sparrows allows parents to have one or two hours to themselves."
To provide various programs to The Sparrows, volunteers have become an essential element. Donna Burruss recently retired from Moore Public Schools, where she worked with special education students. She says it was an easy decision for her and her husband, former Westmoore athletic director John Burruss, to sign up as volunteers with The Sparrow Project.
"I understood that these students were with us in school until they were 22 years old," said Burruss. "And then after that, unless they could hold down some kind of part-time job or something, there was really nothing else for them to do after school was over."
Burruss says that the most important message she would send to folks in the Moore community about volunteering with The Sparrow Project is that you get so much more than you give.
"We benefit because these kids bring us so much joy," said Burruss. "They are wonderful to work with. They love us unconditionally and share themselves with us on such a rich and deep level. I would encourage people to check into volunteering with them."
Richey says there is a cost for those participating in The Sparrow Project but wants to be sure everyone understands that cost won't stand in the way of those who can't afford to pay.
"We charge anywhere from five to $15 per class, but we don't turn anybody away," said Richey.
"That covers about 50% of the program or the class. And then we supplement the rest of it."
Richey and DiSalvatore both say that many in the Moore community have helped make The Sparrow Project a success so far, some by volunteering and others by supporting the organization in various ways.
"We couldn't do this without the community," said Richey. "Honestly, I can't imagine another community embracing us the way Moore has since we started."
DiSalvatore adds, "They really care about these kids and support us so well, especially our friends at Moore Public Schools. They're committed to seeing our kids out in the community after graduation, having rich relationships with others in the community."
It's no stretch of the imagination to see the joy and excitement The Sparrow Project has brought to this very deserving group in Moore. It brings to mind the words of the classic hymn by Civilian D. Martin:
I sing because I'm happy,
I sing because I'm free,
For His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.
If you’re interested in learning more about The Sparrow Project, including how to volunteer or financially support The Sparrows, just visit: sparrowproject.net or call 405-642-4832.