More than 10 years ago, JoAnn McNamee was at a Halloween party with some fellow parents of special needs young adults. Her daughter Kate, who has Down syndrome, was on the precipice of graduating high school, and she and some of her fellow parents were concerned about what the children’s future held after high school and how they would spend their time. McNamee decided she would fill the void.
In 2008, McNamee started “Kate’s Place,” a nonprofit run out of the First United Methodist Church of Moorestown that provides programming for young adults with special needs. At Kate’s Place, attendees socialize, take part in physical activities and build friendships. In the 11 years since the program’s founding, the program has grown, and the participants have grown with it having tackled the challenges of young adulthood together.
McNamee said when young adults with special needs graduate high school, they often lose a community and the friendships they’ve built during those years. She said these young adults are at high risk of becoming isolated, and given that many of her attendees can’t drive themselves, they might lead inactive, sedentary lives.
She wanted to counteract that with Kate’s Place. So, McNamee’s program gets attendees up and moving. From 2:30 to 6 p.m. on Mondays and Fridays, attendees receive a healthy snack and then get up and get moving. They play kickball, volleyball, soccer, and they’ve even recently partnered with ballroom dancing and karate programs.
Kate’s Place has never capped the age of attendees, so the group has attendees ranging from 18 to 52 years old. Every year, Kate’s Place hosts a prom for the group. McNamee said she commonly hears feedback from parents who say they don’t know what they would do without the program.
McNamee’s passion for the nonprofit is palpable as she speaks. She affectionately refers to the group as her “gang” and warmly discusses some of the ways in which she’s watched the program make an impact. She said her daughter Kate lost 100 pounds and met her boyfriend through Kate’s Place.
“My life revolves around that program; my entire life,” McNamee said.
Nearly a year ago, however, McNamee and her gang faced a new challenge together when McNamee was diagnosed with breast cancer. She knew she was going to lose her hair when she started undergoing treatment, and she didn’t want them to be alarmed.
So, she sat the group down and explained that she has cancer and would be undergoing treatment. She subsequently let every attendee at Kate’s Place get a swipe as they all helped to shave her head. McNamee only missed one day at Kate’s Place while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Elizabeth Heusser, one of the volunteers at Kate’s Place, said she can’t say enough about McNamee’s heart of gold. Formerly a special education teacher, Heusser said in school, the priority was getting students to a certain level of understanding.
At Kate’s Place, the priority is to give students opportunities to be social and form bonds they might not have had during their schooling. Attendees are in constant contact and text, call and Facebook message each other on a regular basis.
“It really makes me really happy just to witness and be part of it,” Heusser said.
Attendees are charged a fee of $30 per day, and Heusser fundraises to cover the bulk of their costs.
She said given her recent health issues, she’s given some thought to where she sees Kate’s Place headed. She said she would like to see Kate’s Place develop into a program that can run without her – though she’s not certain what future format that may take. She said she always looking for new ways to fundraise and get people involved to keep the program going.
“They’re all like my kids,” McNamee said. “Everything I do – whether I’m there or not there – is revolving around that gang of individuals.”
To learn more about Kate’s Place, visit http://www.katesplaceinc.org.