For 25 years, Kids on the Go (KOTG) has been helping children with special needs and their parents with services, programs, and resources. Says one mom, "KOTG has been a blessing! We finally found a place where my son feels safe, comfortable, confident, and accepted."
Founded by Kristin Piana Schena of Grosse Pointe, a specialist in the field of speech-language pathology, she saw a need and wanted to make a difference. While schools provided therapy during the school year, children and families were left to their own devices during the summer months.
"Over the summer, a typical developing child can fall behind, and it can take until the end of September to catch up," she says. "If you have a child with special needs, it can take until the end of December to catch up."
Kristin initially devised an idea to offer tuition-based summer camps so kids with special needs would not experience what she calls this "summer slide." But she quickly realized that wasn't going to work. "Many of the families of children with special needs have a lot of other financial obligations."
Instead, she asked local people and businesses to sponsor children. "That's how Kids on the Go was born - we launched our first program at Bi-County Community Hospital in Warren, Michigan. It was really based on the Macomb Intermediate School District Program for their preschoolers, and we took the goals established by therapists and teachers at the end of the school year and addressed them during the summer months. When the campers returned to school in the fall, they had not fallen behind."
The multidisciplinary camp takes place for six weeks. The children come together twice a week for two-hour sessions with a different theme each week. It might be camping adventures, or it could be animals or STEM activities. Also included are speech pathology therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. KOTG has given out nearly 500 scholarships to more than 270 families this summer. Some of the kids partake in more than one program.
Over the years, KOTG has greatly expanded its services. In 2018, it relocated to the Nonprofit Center at Pare in St. Clair Shores, and this move has allowed the organization to provide programming throughout the year.
"We offer after-school and Saturday morning programs during the school year," says Kristin. "In 2020, we also opened our first program in Traverse City. In addition, we run a golf program at Jamar Park in Detroit, and this is our 11th year doing adaptive tennis with the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club. We've also been running programs for about 15 years in Rochester."
Another way KOTG has grown is by expanding its offerings to older kids. It started accepting children aged 3 to 6 and now has programs for those up to age 17. "There was a big gap in our community of servicing our teens, so we started a Teens to Work program," she says. "And what's really special about that program is we're giving them pre-employment skills, social skills, financial literacy, and independent living skills."
One of the students who took part in Teens to Work just finished his first year at Concordia, and another is going next year. "We also have a teen going into Rising Stars Academy, a great culinary arts program for those with disabilities. One of the goals of Kids on the Go is to find out what these kids' unique talents are and really help them find what their gift is. I always tell parents to never let a diagnosis define their child's future."
One mom says, "Our son is gaining a lot of confidence learning new skills, and being around the other kids helps him to interact with his peers more, which is really important. The focus on real skills is much more effective for our son than some traditional therapies we have tried."
Kristin loves to see the impact and ripple effect that KOTG is making in the participants' lives. Some kids who've actually attended the camps have returned to volunteer. "We have a young woman, a former camper, who is now in nursing school who came back two years ago to start volunteering."
Another young woman, who volunteered for KOTG in high school, went on to get her master's in speech pathology. She works in their Traverse City program and is their board liaison. "Her growth and career path took place because of volunteering with Kids on the Go," says Kristin.
A young man, who was at the camp when he was 3 for developmental delays, is now in his second year of law school at Michigan State. "When I asked him what type of law he was hoping to pursue, he said he wanted to go into helping those with disabilities," she says.
For Kristin, Kids on the Go was an unexpected blessing in her life. "Nine years into this, I was married with three children, an almost 3-year-old and almost one-year-old twins. It wasn't easy to manage everything.
"My husband and I discussed how long I could keep this going. I said I needed at least one more year to make it to our 10th anniversary. That summer, one of my twins was diagnosed with hypotonia, low muscle tone from head to toe. I began my journey as a parent of a child with special needs, dealing with therapies that weren't covered by insurance. I then put on a different hat. I wasn't just the founder and executive director; I was now a parent of a child with special needs."
Later, her oldest child was diagnosed with rare epilepsy in the third grade. "I realized how much the program had blessed me with my resources, the medical connections, and the network of families that had already walked my path and were there to hold my hand this time." Today, her children are doing very well.
KOTG also started hosting parent workshops because Kristin saw the need for parents to connect with other parents on the same journey. In the fall of 2022, KOTG, The Family Center, The Arc, the Full Circle Foundation, and the Grosse Pointe Schools transition program formed an alliance to bring resources to families with special needs from birth through adulthood. "We held our first resource fair in February with over 40 vendors and almost 300 attendees."
As these children get older and things change or develop other issues, this alliance will provide parents with ongoing resources. "One mom came up to me and told me that she is so overwhelmed every year just trying to figure out what's coming up for the next year," says Kristin. "With tears in her eyes, she said she now knows there are resources for her for the year beyond."
Like many nonprofits, KOTG relies on community support, whether volunteering, donating, sponsoring a child, or attending fundraising events.
"Something unique that we've done for 25 years is to hold a sponsor celebration event where our families and the campers present the sponsor with a letter," she says. "Sponsors get to see where their donations go, and the rewards of their support, and it's such a personal connection. We also present the sponsors with a plaque for their business and put their logos on our T-shirts." KOTG holds an annual golf outing, a big gala, and other events.
"I have a strong faith, and God's put some great people in my path," says Kristin. "I really do believe that it takes a village."
To find out more and/or provide your support, go to KidsOnTheGoCamp.com.
"We are overwhelmed by the strides our son made this summer and really see the work the staff has put into him."
"It's incredible to have a place where my kid can go to have fun and learn skills where there is no pressure or judgment."