Allaina: Socialize to Succeed

Allaina has been with us for several years, participating in our programs as soon as she was eligible. Before Allaina began attending our events, her dad volunteered to make sure we offered the type of programs he knew his daughter needed to succeed. Since starting here, Allaina has thrived and dramatically improved her social skills and connections in the community.

Allaina says “I learned about my disability, autism, when I was ten years old. I talked to my parents about it and educated myself. I learned that people with autism often struggle with interacting with others; I did not want that to be me. I learned as much as I could about developing my social skills.”

Her first event was laser tag at Sports Fusion. Nervous at first, she only talked to the other participants when support staff prompted her. She says, “I initially joined because I wanted to make more friends. I would see the same people at events, and I started to get to know them. Interacting with those people made me want to attend more events. Now, I can make friends in unstructured settings.” Allaina is now proud to say, “Now, I talk to everyone. Sometimes I’ll voluntarily ask for someone’s number–I never used to do that.” 

When she started with us, Allaina acknowledges she looked to her parents to take care of everything for her. Now, she makes plans with friends with hardly any help from her parents, something she learned through us. Allaina believes she now has a more laid-back relationship with her parents because they don’t take care of as many things for her.

Allaina says we have shown her that everyone with a disability is unique, opening her eyes to people from other walks of life. Allaina says, “Through Pathways, I’ve learned to let go of what everyone thinks of me and focus on connections with friends. I love the Pathways staff. They are friendly, kind and supportive. They give great feedback, and they are wonderful people to talk to.” 

Allaina now has the confidence to set ambitious goals for herself as she becomes more independent. She has plans to continue her education and obtain a Bachelor’s Degree, is working towards getting a paid job by learning vocational skills and continues to volunteer at the Jewish Food Pantry. She also participates in the SUCCEED program at UMSL, which promotes independence through academics, vocational experiences and residential life.

Through Allaina’s participation, she now leads a more confident, fulfilled and connected life.

Brian: Connect to Confidence

Brian moved to St. Louis a few years ago after living in Cincinnati, Ohio. Although Brian and his parents had family in the St. Louis area, he didn’t want to leave his friends and his job of 22 years at Kroger. 

A month after moving to St. Louis, Brian secured a job with Schnucks. He was excited to be working at the “Friendliest Store in Town!” However, Brian still felt a void because he didn’t have a group of friends like he had in Cincinnati. 

Brian learned about us through a parent of another participant. Brian admits he was nervous to attend his first event, but he saw that the staff and other participants were very welcoming. 

Brian has focused on creating meaningful relationships and expanding his social network. He credits our staff with helping him become comfortable with introducing himself to new people, and coaching him on conversation starters. 

Since joining, Brian has made good friends and is more confident. “I feel more comfortable asking questions and having conversations. I’ve also improved by budgeting skills, so I don’t overspend.” 

In 2019, Brian spoke at our annual fundraiser, sharing why our organization is important to him. He has also recently fulfilled another personal goal of moving into his own apartment.

Leigh: Read to Relate

Leigh has a full plate these days – going to work, volunteering in her community and hanging out with family and friends. She has been employed for 12 years and was recently promoted to Team Lead, supervising six team members. Leigh is a huge St. Louis Cardinals and Blues fan and loves watching movies. She also loves to relax with a needlepoint project, a great way to wind down after a busy day.

Leigh remembers a time when she didn’t feel as confident as she does today. She often didn’t know how to express her emotions and had a hard time dealing with feelings of frustration. Leigh’s mom learned about us through a friend, and after a “little convincing,” Leigh tried out her first event. By the time she went to her third activity, she knew she had found the right place. That was in 2009, and now Leigh is leading her own activities.

Leigh has always been a big reader and last year approached our staff about starting a Book Club. A launch party was held last October to include any participants that had an interest in being a part of the Book Club. Leigh selected Never Caught by Erica Armstrong Dunbar as the group’s first read.

There have been about eight “regulars” attending the monthly Book Club meetings. Attendees enjoy discussing the books while they share a meal.  Members take turns picking a book for each month and lead the discussion for their book of choice. Leaders have shown their creativity, incorporating games and other fun activities into the book discussion. Leigh likes that everyone is respectful and open-minded in Book Club and that they have all made contributions to its success. 

“Pathways is more than just fun activities and hanging out,” says Leigh. Our programming around reducing stress, self-awareness and relationships has enhanced Leigh’s skills. She has incorporated these skills into her job at St. Louis ARC and at her volunteer position at Sign of the Arrow. She had also learned the importance of working one-on-one with staff to find ways to decompress, handle conflict and how to turn a bad day into a great one.

Melanie: Engage to Experience

Melanie admits she was very nervous when she attended her first event a couple of years ago. She wasn’t comfortable trying new things or interacting with new people. Looking back, she remembers how our staff made her feel at ease during dinner and the Bunco event that followed. By attending more events and with the assistance of our staff, Melanie has developed new friendships and has become more comfortable in group situations. Before working with us, Melanie would avoid venturing out on her own. She will now even go places by herself. 

Melanie’s sister-in-law Michele learned about us via community contacts including Easter Seals Midwest. Michele’s goal was to help Melanie develop support and friendships. “As a part of Pathways, she’s able to witness others dealing with challenges and how they’ve found their own sense of independence. [Pathways] has given Melanie the opportunity to figure out who she is and what she wants for her future. Most importantly, it’s helping give her the skills to set and reach goals.”

As a long-time employee at a local nursing home, Melanie shared that her involvement with us “Has helped me come out of my shell” and has enhanced her work experience. When she’s not working or attending one of our events, Melanie likes to go shopping or hang out with friends she met through our programs.

In addition to meeting new people, we have also introduced Melanie to new experiences.  Outings to the Butterfly House, Rockin’ Jump trampoline park and the Wild Lights at the Zoo have been some of her favorites. Her only complaint? “Sometimes there are so many [Pathways] calendar events, it’s hard to choose.”

Melanie said she would definitely recommend us to others who are considering the program. Her words of advice to anyone who is unsure are to “Give it a chance.”  When asked if she has seen changes in Melanie since her involvement, Michele said, “Melanie is soaring with all the support from Pathways!”

Michael: Plan to Prosper

Michael joined us in 2015 and since then has achieved many of the goals he set for himself. When he graduated from high school, he was ready to try new things and get out in the community. Michael says, “During high school I was very shy. I felt kind of insecure about myself. I had some acquaintances and a couple of friends. When high school ended, I lost contact with the few people I was friends with; I mostly kept to myself.”

In 2015 Michael started looking for a job through the MERS MO Goodwill Industries Autism Employment Program (MMGI-AEP). While he was there, he learned about us when Jessie Hautly, Pathways’ Program Director, visited and introduced him to our programs. When Michael saw the posted social calendar at MERS/Goodwill, he became interested in what we could offer.

Michael sees a real difference since he started here. “Since I’ve been at [Pathways], I’ve become more outgoing and more willing to plan things, even things outside of Pathways events. I feel like I am more confident, more willing to greet people, talk about different topics, ask questions and make small talk. I also learned more about how to budget and now pre-plan how much I want to spend when I go out.”

He especially likes the Social Focus program where participants work with staff to plan their own social activities. “I planned my first small group going to the Butterfly House. I wanted to practice being more independent in planning and get to know certain people at Pathways better. I was anxious if everyone I invited would like what we were doing. I like that it’s up to me to invite people and that I can invite who I want. Sometimes, I try to invite people that I haven’t invited before so that they feel included and to get to know them better.”

Michael continues to grow his social network since he started planning his own social activities. “I think I’m more in touch with people. I’ll call or text to see how things have been. I have a lot more friends now because of planning small groups. Planning my own events makes me feel satisfied with myself that I’m able to be willing to get out and do something that involves inviting people under my own initiative. I really like trying some new things, too.”  

Jamie Larson, one of our Program Managers, has seen real growth in Michael’s confidence and conversation skills as well. “I feel like Michael has dramatically improved his ability to have deeper, more meaningful conversations with peers by participating both in larger events and through coming up with his own ideas for small groups.”

Michael has gained confidence in being able to meet new people in the community on his own. “When I joined Pathways, I was going to events to try to get to know people and try to make those connections. I wanted to gain confidence to get together with people outside of Pathways and with small groups. I’m doing that now.” 

Jim: Fun to Friendship

Jim says life was a little dull before he joined us in 2009 at the age of 40. “The organization has opened some new doors for me, socially,” Jim said. He has made lasting friendships, which he feels would not have been possible without his involvement. Jim says, “Some of the best times of my life have been at Pathways events.”

After Jim was diagnosed with autism, he did research on the developmental disorder and immediately recognized the traits in himself. He has difficulty in social settings and really has to work at reaching out to others. Participating in our programs gave Jim the opportunity to connect with others facing similar challenges. “When I’m [at a Pathways event], I get to leave the society that judges me behind and hang around my own people. It’s like magic.” 

In addition to social challenges associated with autism, Jim has also had to deal with some serious health issues, including Leukemia. He has spent substantial time in the hospital and added that dealing with these health concerns has been overwhelming. Attending our events helps take his mind off of what he’s going through. Jim added that “Pathways is like a light in the tunnel for me.”

While we have helped Jim develop a social circle, he has also learned how to better understand other individuals’ perspectives. He attributes this new skill to our staff coaching during activities and follow-up conversations. 

One of Jim’s favorite events was a birthday party he planned for himself.  He was so excited to have friends help him celebrate and was very happy with how it turned out. “That was the best party I’ve ever had!”