Club 21 Aims to Make Summer Connections

It’s a Wednesday afternoon in mid-July and a group of teenagers are sauntering across the dance floor at Lineage Performing Arts Center in Pasadena. They practice new routines in pairs, moving from one side of the room to the other as pop music blares, occasionally observing their form in the mirror. Each strut elicits smiles and high-fives from their peers. Although some of these teens have Down syndrome and others do not, there is a natural sense of camaraderie in the shared experience.
This is the goal of Club 21’s second annual summer camp known as Club Connections, which seeks to expose teenagers with Down syndrome to different arts and culture in the greater Los Angeles area.
“We wanted to learn how we could put teens with and without disabilities together to see how they could learn from one another, build mutual relationships and how it could foster some friendships,” said Nancy Litteken, executive director of Club 21, a learning and resource center in Pasadena for individuals with Down syndrome.
Promoting this crucial interaction is what differentiates Club Connections from other summer camps in the area. Those without the congenital disorder are called “Typical Teen Volunteers,” and many of them attend local schools. Prior to camp, they receive training at Club 21 regarding the proper ways to deal with peers who have Down syndrome, a condition that results from a chromosome defect and causes intellectual impairment along with slight physical abnormalities.
“This program is all about social learning, so it’s a great thing for [those with Down syndrome] to see typical teen behavior,” said Club 21 Education Coordinator and Club Connections Co-Director Karla Aragon. “For some of our kids, social skills are something you have to teach like math and English. Having them develop relationships and make connections is really important.”
Aside from taking dance lessons, Club Connections campers have also laughed at a comedy show, stargazed at the Griffith Observatory and visited the California Science Center. Future plans on the docket include a tour of Dodger Stadium and a stroll down Olvera Street. In total, there are 16 different activities scheduled.
“I think that L.A. has a lot going on,” said Club Connections Co-Director Freddie Reid, who helped compile the list of destinations with Aragon. “It’s very diverse — a ton of different cultures and a ton of different art styles. A lot of our teens expressed interest. Some of them really love dancing. Others love to go see plays and musicals.”
“A big goal for us was to give our teens with Down syndrome a typical summer experience — what other typical teens might be doing in L.A.”
Club Connections is open to members ages 13-22. For most teens, this age range represents the time when a yearning for independence begins to develop, when parents feel comfortable leaving their children at home alone to make plans for themselves. But for teens with intellectual disabilities, it’s not quite that simple. Driving usually isn’t an option, and developing the social relationships that lead to setting up hangouts is something that must be learned.
“It’s very isolating,” explained Litteken, whose daughter, Molly, has Down syndrome and is a camper at Club Connections. “You end up being at home alone. What this has provided is a way to get out and see the world and see what’s available, and to experience that as a teenager and not as a little kid.’”
The camp encourages its teens with Down syndrome to use their handicap TAP cards when the group takes public transportation as a way to build self-help and independence skills. The metro TAP card program allows passengers with disabilities to qualify for reduced fares on participating public transit.
Club Connections was made possible thanks to a grant from the Tournament of Roses Foundation.
“For them to give us this grant and believe in us says an awful lot about what we value in this world at a time that is so fraught with fear and anger and distrust of one another,” said Litteken. “This summer at Club 21, with the help of the Tournament of Roses, we’re fostering lots of understanding, dispelling myths and figuring out how we live together.”

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