Social skills are extremely important for anyone wishing to lead a happy, productive life. But these skills can be a hard thing to learn if, for any reason, they don’t come naturally. For those with disabilities, learning these skills can be especially challenging. That’s where the nonprofit organization known as ASPPIRE can help — big time.
Maria Peak, who has served as ASPPIRE’s director since 2014, explains the organization was founded for the purpose of helping those with disabilities develop and maintain these crucial skills. She also stresses that the importance of these skills should not be underestimated.
“Social skills are how we are understood; it’s how we make connections,” Peak said. “It’s how we find success at work and in personal relationships, and it is how we connect with our communities.”
ASPPIRE was founded in 2008 by an educator named Bob Steinkamp and a parent of two adult sons with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Steinkamp now serves as ASPIRRE’s deputy director.
Those with ASD often struggle significantly with social skills, although many other disorders can result in similar challenges. Steinkamp, who recognized the serious need for social skills training, held the first facilitator-led “social coaching” group at Lansing Community College with only five participants. That number has grown significantly since 2008, as ASPPIRE now offers 11 separate social groups with close to 90 participants in total.
But its focus has moved far beyond just “social coaching,” as the nonprofit currently provides a wide variety of services to close to 150 individuals with disabilities throughout the greater-Lansing area — including Eaton, Ingham and Clinton counties. While initially focused on the social needs of young adults, that too has changed over the years.
“We have people from all over, including some from as far away as Brighton and Jackson,” Peak said. “And they range in age from 18 to 70.
“Many of our people don’t qualify for services through Community Mental Health because their disability is not ‘significant enough.’”
Sam Bumstead, an Eaton Rapids resident who has carried an ASD diagnosis since kindergarten, discovered ASPPIRE four years ago and said it has made a huge difference in his life.
“The staff is the best, they really are,” Bumstead said. “They will do anything to help you, no matter what.
“They will help you get a job and keep a job. They are there whenever you need them, and I can’t say enough good things about them.”
Peak explained ASPPIRE services and program offerings cover a wide range.
“In addition to social coaching, we also offer employment development, person-centered planning, advocacy and much more.”
ASSPIRE is not a government agency and only gets a relatively small percentage of its funding from government sources. Most of its operating budget comes from private donations, private pay and fundraisers.
ASPPIRE classes and programs run throughout the year and are divided into fall, spring and summer sessions. The current program list, for spring 2020, includes Pre-Employment Soft Skills, Healthy Cooking, Mall Walking, Sexual Health, Yoga, Mini Smart Grocery Shopping and numerous Social Coaching sessions. There are also weekly craft and social clubs and several special social activities, including a movie night and a field trip to the Impression 5 museum. The main office is located in west Lansing, but classes and programs are held at locations all around the greater-Lansing area.
Peak stressed that ASPPIRE highly values collaboration with the community and welcomes all. “ASPPIRE staff, facilitators and participants are supportive and welcoming to all,” she said. “Once you are part of the ‘ASPPIRE family,’ you are connected with a group that truly cares.”
Registration for ASPPIRE’s spring session is now open, with classes and events starting in February. A special open house and registration event will take place on Wednesday, Jan. 15, from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the main office located at 3815 W. St. Joe, Suite B – 400B, in Lansing (inside the Fairlane Professional Building). Those interested in signing up first need to apply to become an ASPPIRE participant. An application form is available online at asppireofmidmichigan.com or by calling 989-272-2977. Those wishing further information can also send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
ASPPIRE is also currently in the midst of a fundraising campaign. Donations can be made by visiting the “ASPPIRE of Mid-Michigan” Facebook page or by visiting the website.
Peak said Community Mental Health’s recent closure of community-based “transition programs” has prompted ASPPIRE to consider starting social coaching groups in Eaton County.
“ASPPIRE understands the barriers around transportation and would love to offer ASPPIRE groups during times and places where Eaton County residents could access their services,” she said. She encourages anyone who may be interested in such a program to reach out to her at the above phone number or email address.
Editor Carla Bumstead contributed to this report.