In The News

Cherry Hills Article 2014

Original Post: Cherry Hills Living January 2014

It seems you can’t open a newspaper or turn on the television without hearing of another case of bullying that has led to a tragic end. Though many people believe something must be done to stop this unnecessary behavior, they are at a loss as to what to do.

Stephanie Schiff, executive director of Connect Us took a courageous step in 2009 and founded a nonprofit organization with a mission to help preschool and elementary age children build self confidence, cultivate positive relationships and thrive socially.

To date, Connect Us has served nearly 500 children after school guided play-groups, summer camp programs and 1,000’s more through recess facilitation programs, manned by trained volunteers and staff.

The key to the success of the program is the integration of three categories of children: Socially Competent who are generally outgoing, social, assertive, positive, confident and leaders who have no problem making friends; Socially At-Risk children, who are typically overly sensitive, anxious, shy, impulsive, controlling and have problems keeping friends; the third group are classified as Socially Disadvantaged who usually have a diagnosis of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, learning disability or other anxiety disorder that may inhibit them from interacting with others.

By putting this diverse population of children together in a play situation, they learn from each other and develop not only confidence but tolerance and respect for others. Upon meeting Stephanie, you can’t help but become caught up in her passion for this program. “I just want to help kids,” she said. When her son was 5 years old, she noticed that he was withdrawn and not interactive with the other children on the playground. He has a diagnosis of high-functioning autism and Stephanie realized that there were many more children out there who need help with their social skills.

Dr. Mary Shay, principal at Cottonwood Creek Elementary School is quoted as saying “…Connect Us filled a void by working with children to break down social barriers and to build up the social astuteness of our students.”

Other Cherry Creek schools that have participated in Connect Us with great success are Belleview Elementary, Cherry Hills Village Elementary and High Plains Elementary.

Though the program has made great strides to instill positive social behavior and to teach valuable tools that will help children achieve and be successful, it does come at a small price. Operating a nonprofit is difficult without consistent funding. Stephanie predicts that unless there is an infusion of money soon, Connect Us will have to discontinue the programs provided not only to schools but to individuals through the summer camps. The paid staff includes child therapists, facilitators and a programs coordinator, however, this is a community effort – with hundreds of volunteer hours accumulated each year. Even middle-school students, some who have been through the program, volunteer to help.

In 2012 Connect Us held its first fundraiser at Glenwood Country Club featuring a live and silent auction. With approximately 130 guests in attendance, the foundation raised close to $18,000. The next year, a casino-themed event was again held at the Glenwood Country Club in an effort to raise funds for the nonprofit organization. This time, the evening’s funds were nearly $24,000. Though that may seem substantial to some, it is not nearly enough to keep this vital and relevant organization funded so they can provide programs to those children who benefit by Connect Us services.

Stephanie is looking for three main things to help keep Connect Us up and running. First, she needs an infusion of money or sponsorship; second, a team willing to help guide the structure of the organization as it grows; and finally, volunteers who, like Stephanie, have a heart to help children navigate the challenges and cruelty this world may place before them. For more information about Connect Us, please visit www.connectusnow.org.com, or call (303)-773-3960

Recess 101: The art of play

A few Cherry Creek Schools have implemented Recess Facilitation Programs in an effort to reduce bullying

Original post: Yourhub.com

Recess is making a comeback in some Cherry Creek Schools. During a time of reduced playtime at school, virtual Wii sports, and structured after-school competitive teams, recess has become an afterthought. The days of four-square, kickball and hopscotch seem to be long gone.

But not at Cherry Hills Village, Cottonwood Creek and High Plains Elementary Schools. Parents, teachers and administrators have “taken back” the playground and are making it a place where group games and peer collaboration are encouraged. Through a non-profit “Connect Us,” the schools have implemented Recess Facilitation Programs, which train staff and parent volunteers to guide organized games at recess, where children of all backgrounds and abilities have the opportunity to partake in a variety of group activities.

Stephanie Schiff, Executive Director of Connect Us, says, “so many of our kids struggle to navigate the unstructured playground environment and as we all know, it doesn’t get any easier in middle school. We need to recognize that playgrounds create significant learning opportunities …where kids learn to collaborate, accept others’ strengths and weaknesses, negotiate rules and take turns. The support that play facilitators provide, make it possible for so many children to develop these critical life skills.”

Studies show that bullying, injuries and disputes decrease when children are engaged in purposeful play at recess. Schiff says “a strong recess program reduces competitive intensity, rough play, aggressive behaviors, injuries and susceptibility to being or becoming a bully. Through facilitated play, we empower children in early childhood to embrace differences, stand up for themselves and others and ultimately, create a respectful, inclusive recess environment.”  The Cherry Creek School District has taken many measures to reduce bullying at schools, such as Bully Awareness programs and surveys to measure bullying in schools. But a few schools, like Cherry Hills Village, have taken it a step further, by adopting Recess Facilitation Programs, where kids learn, first-hand, how to handle disputes and cooperate through play. “This leads to a more productive classroom environment,” Schiff says, “because arguments and conflict are resolved on the playground, and not carried over into the classroom.”

Natalie Morris, a 2 ndgrade teacher at Cottonwood Creek Elementary School, claims “parent volunteers are trained to help children quickly resolve conflicts, find friends who are alone, and offer guidance to those students who tend to dominate group activities. The outcome has been a reduction in bullying…less tattling and a faster transition to instruction time.”

Cottonwood Creek parent volunteer, Lisa Ovando, says: “It was so rewarding to see one of the shyest girls in 3rd grade finally participating in a game after we’d been out there a few weeks. We made it a safe and fair place for her to play and the more she played, the more her self-confidence began to soar. This could possibly change the isolated direction in which she appeared to be heading. Without recess facilitation, I’m pretty sure she would still be roaming around the playground by herself.”

Stacy Maclean, parent volunteer at High Plains Elementary says, “This has changed the whole culture at our school. Now we have children who were always alone, children who used to dominate games and children that everyone gets along with, all playing a game of four-square together, developing bonds and communication skills that will carry over long after recess is over.”

Connect Us in a nonprofit organization whose mission is to instill the skills in preschool and elementary-age children that are necessary to becoming socially competent, self-confident and resilient individuals throughout their lives.   In addition to its Recess Facilitation programs, Connect Us offers summer camp and facilitated, after-school social groups, designed to develop communication, problem-solving and leadership skills through the spontaneity of play .

For more information on Connect Us, or how your school can implement a Recess Facilitation Program, visit www.connectusnow.org or call 303-773-3960.

“Breakfast Club” for a Younger Set

by: Maureen Edwards

Original post: Yourhub.com

There’s the jock….the princess….the quirky kid….the shy outsider….the kid who gets into fights a lot. The movie “The Breakast Club” brings all of these kids together one Saturday morning and somehow, they reach beyond their labels and begin to understand each other. What a beautiful idea, but rarely is this acheived in our schools.

At one Cherry Creek School, however, a student doesn’t need to be sentenced to a morning of detention to be immersed with kids who seemingly have nothing in common. Cottonwood Elementary School offers an after-school enrichment class–a “Friday Afternoon Club” so to speak–where kids from all walks of life come together to “let loose” and tear apart the social barriers standing in the way of friendships.

The programs are designed and facilitated by the nonprofit, Connect Us. Stephanie Schiff, Executive Director of Connect Us, says that “bringing these kids together has to start at a young age, before their prejudices are set in stone.” She says “too many kids are isolated and lonely on the playground.They lack the social skills to be “accepted” by their peers. And all too often, these are the kids who are bullied as they grow up.”

On an ordinary Friday afternoon, the gym and subsequent classrooms are brimming with giggly children who, otherwise, would be eyeing each other from afar. Fun, physical and team-based activities are facilitated by trained staff in groups of 8-10, “Kids learn to be ‘kids’ again, and all of their social stigmas are left at the door,” says Albert Ovando, a Connect Us Coach/facilitator.

Many times, kids are forced to step outside their comfort zones and challenge their own assumptions. “Some kids come to us with no self-esteem, and they are used to being left out. Some kids have always been popular and don’t know how to be empathetic and cooperative. And other kids have special needs, such as high functioning autism, or learning disabilities, which automatically puts them at a social disadvantage,” says Schiff. “What we try to do is get these kids all together and strip them of their armor.”

Sounds like an impossible feat, but Connect Us is making a difference, both at school and at home. Playground activity is becoming more inclusive, and classroom behaviors are improving. Schiff says, “Parents tell me that their kids are being more kind to their siblings. Or that their extremely shy 7-year old is making friends and playing at recess. Or their child who has high-functioning autism is now being asked on play dates with his peers.”

Connect Us is continuing its programs at Cottonwood, and hopes to bring its valuable mission to schools across the country.”Now is the time,” Schiff says, “because, as we know from experience, high school might be too late.”

For those interested, Connect Us will be offering 3 summer camp sessions this year. “Last year was so successful that we are able to offer our camp progams to more kids. We hope that they will build long-lasting friendships to take back to school in the Fall.”

Connect Us is a 501(c)(3) organization and offers afterschool and preschool programs in different locations. Summer Camp programs will be offered for kids from preschool through 4th graders.

Any questions? Visit their website at www.connectusnow.org or e-mail Stephanie Schiff at Stephanie@connectusnow.org

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