SPANNER break barriers while having fun

SPANNER, a nonprofit organization, aims to improve quality of life for young people with developmental disabilities.

Volunteers and members of SPANNER take a break from dodgeball for a group picture.

On a recent Friday night, teenagers and young adults played dodgeball in the all-purpose room at HOPE Church in Voorhees. Smiles and laughs filled the room as they threw the ball at one another to get them out of the game.

This night of games and other activities is a weekly event for SPANNER, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for young people with developmental disabilities. SPANNER is an acronym that loosely stands for “special population achieving normalcy through education and recreation.”

“It’s very high functioning except for a handful of kids,” said Barbara Stoner, director of SPANNER and first-grade teacher at Evans Elementary School in Marlton. “The majority are on the autism spectrum and they have Asperger’s Syndrome. They have very high IQs, but no social skills.”

About 60 members make up the group, and they improve their social skills, team building skills and learn how to play together while having fun at the same time. They are able to be comfortable in this environment as they play with young adults just like them.

“Our club is pretty much based on all communication, education and recreational activities,” Stoner explained. “We work on basic communication skills and appropriate social skills so they know how to start a conversation and they can interact at school.”

On this night, the Forest Meadow Clubhouse Cuties from Sicklerville were on hand to deliver a $1,500 check to Stoner and the organization. Each year they do a fundraiser for a different charity and this year they chose SPANNER.

“We wanted to do something with autism, and we wanted to do something that wasn’t well financed,” member Mame Anderson said. “We found that they don’t have very many backers.”

“We can’t thank these ladies enough,” Stoner said. “That money will be put to good use.”

Ladies from the Forest Meadow Clubhouse Cuties from Sicklerville present a check to SPANNER. From left: Shellie Costello, Ryan Cullen, Sandy Lacher, Barbara Stoner, Mame Anderson, Andrew Kessler, Justin Stoner and Jon Patouhas.

Stoner said the organization started close to 25 years ago by a couple of teachers at St. John of God in Westville, but it was run a completely different way.

“They kind of ran it like a disabled person is with a normal person, so it was definitely labels on people, definitely a divided group,” she said.

Stoner’s son, Justin, joined the group and they asked her for help because of her teaching background. She observed how it was run and knew changes had to be made. She took over shortly after and changed the way the organization works for the better and made sure everyone is treated equally.

“It was just the very edge of dissolving labels on people and being a little more respectful to diversity,” Stoner explained. “When I took it over, I revamped it and made it one club. There are no labels. My son did best when he was around good role models and where he was treated like everybody else was treated. I made it my personal mission that everyone would be treated equally. There would be no labels, and we would be one united club.”

Stoner has had a number of volunteers through the years, some who started volunteering in high school and continue to do so to this day.

“I have volunteers who started in eighth grade and now they are lawyers and in medical school, they’ve been with me almost the whole run,” she said. “Nobody ever quits. That’s the one thing that is so unique about it.”

“It’s really great to be here for a long period of time to see growth in kids and really see the impact you have over an extended period of time and in short bursts,” 28-year-old volunteer Jon Patouhas said. “Nothing compares to it.”

Patouhas said the impact is instant, and the kids feel comfortable right away.

“We have kids come in for the first time and parents are like, oh they don’t really talk to people, they aren’t used to interacting with anybody, we’re not sure how they are going to react to this, and they get tossed in and they just talk to everybody,” he said. “Their parents are shocked.”

The members look forward to Friday night every week, and the majority of them said dodgeball is their favorite part.

“I love the people, I love coming here letting my energy out,” said 25-year-old Sean Cordasto of Cherry Hill.

Best friends Sean Cordasto and David Santiago having a blast at SPANNER.

“I come with Sean as much as I can, it’s awesome here,” said his best friend David Santiago of Pennsauken. “It’s nice to get out and hangout with awesome people. We have a good time and play dodgeball. They will take an ordinary game and turn it into an amazing game.”

Even if new members aren’t into sports, Stoner said they modify every activity they do and everyone participates.

“We are a fun group, we laugh a lot,” she said. “I feel like they are my family because we have been together so many years. I call everyone my kids. It’s really a unique group.”

If you are interested or know someone who would be interested in joining SPANNER, contact Stoner at barbarastoner@gmail.com.