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Finding their voice

Mission Voice is a local nonprofit helping families of children with special needs navigate the world of alternative communication technology. Their partnership with Moorestown Parks and Recreation is helping to fund a special needs summer camp program.

Mission Voice is on a mission. The Moorestown-based nonprofit was founded by residents Lisa and Jay O’Donnell to, in their own words, “help children with communication issues find their voice by helping to improve and implement AAC technology in school and at home.”

AAC stands for Augmentative and Alternative Communication. AAC devices encompass various alternative methods of communication that help children and adults who are unable to use verbal speech communicate with others.

Examples of AAC technology cover a variety of communication methods, from sign language to picture boards and speech-generating devices. The wide variety of options are meant to address individual needs.

Lisa and Jay were introduced to the world of AAC technology with the birth of their son Daniel in 2004. Daniel was born with Down syndrome and has relied on speech devices his whole life.

“We feel so fortunate that he was born into a world of technology where he’s been able to leverage AAC to communicate,” said Lisa. “Helping Dan find his voice and be able to not be underestimated, and to be able to express himself and demonstrate how very bright he is, has been part of our goals as a family.”

Since embarking on their journey into the world of AAC, the O’Donnells have decided to lend a helping hand to other parents with differently abled children.

“What we have learned as a family is that it’s a really exciting field, AAC, but it’s a difficult one to navigate because it’s new,” said Lisa.

With an explosion of new speech technologies and apps, it’s easy for families unfamiliar with the world of AAC to feel overwhelmed. That’s where the O’Donnells’ nonprofit Mission Voice comes in.

“We felt that if we could do some small thing to leverage some of the knowledge we had found and the work that we had done we could help others along the way find their voice,” said Lisa.

The O’Donnells are longtime friends of Theresa Miller, director of Moorestown’s Parks and Recreation Department. This friendship led to a partnership between Mission Voice and the local department.

Moorestown Parks and Recreation strives to provide “constructive and creative leisure opportunities” for residents. This extends to Moorestown’s differently abled residents as well. Each year, the department hosts a month-long summer camp program at Moorestown Upper Elementary School.

When they heard about a funding gap in the summer program this year, the O’Donnells decided to use Mission Voice to lend a hand. On Saturday, April 27, they hosted a 5K and one-mile walk at Moorestown Friends School to raise funds for Moorestown Recreation special needs programs.

“We were blown away by the generosity of the town and our sponsors,” said Lisa.

According to Lisa, they originally began with a goal of 100 participants and ended up with over 250 on the day of the race. Through their efforts, they managed to raise $40,000 to help fund the special needs summer program.

According to Miller, the summer camp program has grown exponentially since its inception and this year’s program may not have been possible if not for Mission Voice.

The camp runs from Monday, July 1 to Friday, July 26 and includes a variety of activities for special needs children of all ages, including swimming, bowling and field trips to places like the Discovery Museum.

“It’s really packed full with a lot of really fun activities,” said Miller. “They have the same camp experience as everyone else.”

For more information on Mission Voice, you can visit its website at missionvoice.org. To learn more about Moorestown Parks and Recreation’s special needs summer program, visit moorestown.nj.us/253/parks-recreation and click on the Special Needs Programs link.

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