Finding Gloria’s North Star: The Power of Music and Virtual Connections
Smiling wide and clapping her hands, Gloria Snyder eagerly awaited her turn in Virtual Connections. The program starts out the same each time: from 4–5 p.m., each attendee takes a turn performing a song as part of their daily concert.
Gloria’s favorite portion of Virtual Connections has always been music. In fact, music has been at the root of Gloria’s happiness for as long as her mother, Mary Campbell, can remember. Mary referred to music as “Gloria’s North Star.”
“The group is supportive, and they cheer each other on. They all decided to take Gloria along for the ride with them,” Mary said.
The recreation program, Virtual Connections, is an inclusive, peer-led online space. It provides people with developmental disabilities an opportunity to connect with others, participate in a group setting, and feel more autonomous and independent in their overall lives. The recreation program runs daily from 4–9 p.m. and 10 a.m.–9 p.m. on Saturdays.
Gloria, age 56, has shown significant progress in her communication and social skills since joining Virtual Connections in 2021. She has received services through Citizens Options Unlimited for a little over a decade and attended Camp Loyaltown since she was just 13 years old.
The mother-daughter duo live at home in Franklin Square, with Virtual Connections being one of the main programs Gloria attends. She logs in nearly every day, both when she returns from her weekly day program in Carle Place, serviced through AHRC Nassau, and throughout the weekend.
“When Gloria comes to day program in the morning, she says ‘hello’ and ‘how are you’ to her friends,” Patricia Jarrett, Manager of the Carle Place Day Site, said. “There is more interaction and much more understanding now.”
To the pleasant surprise of Diane Cambria, Assistant Manager at Carle Place, she got a sweet but rare compliment from Gloria. “She came right up to me the other day and said ‘Diane, I like your necklace,’” Diane said with a proud smile.
When Gloria first joined Citizens’ Virtual Connections program, she leaned on her mother for support. Mary would prompt her from behind on when to respond or wait her turn. With a better grasp on technology, she now joins class independently, only needing assistance to initially log in.
“With a little more encouragement, Gloria can now initiate conversation and participate more independently,” her mother Mary noticed.
Gloria has always been working on these skills, but Mary believes that “Zoom brought it all home.” Now she is “owning herself” and has become a self-advocate by choosing when to sign on to Virtual and what portions of the program she wants to participate in. She continues to practice using technology, like computers and phones, with her community habilitation staff at their local library.
In a recent Virtual, Gloria performed a music solo to Frank Sinatra’s “You Make Me Feel So Young.” Despite her speech impediment, when Gloria’s singing, you can hear her voice so clearly. Mary lovingly referred to Gloria as “everyone’s back-up singer” because she sings along to everyone’s performance.
The difference has been noticed across the board by both her day program staff and Virtual Connections peers. Gloria’s confidence has increased along with social cues like being patient, polite, and stronger verbal articulation.
“Gloria is the rhythmic cheerleader of Carle Place and I’m amazed at the tremendous amount of songs she knows,” said Julie DiDesidero, who has been a volunteer music teacher at the day site for the past four years.
“We’re gonna dance,” Gloria said as she stood up and walked over to Julie. She then performed her favorite song, “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon.
In Virtual Connections, Gloria now anticipates responding to questions and waits her turn to speak. She actively listens to others and better comprehends what they’re saying.
She has been initiating conversations more, both inside and outside of class, like what color nail polish she wants when she goes to the salon, Mary noticed. Gloria was also getting better at referring to herself in the first person, rather than in the third.
The class has an average of 15 attendees and is supported by one staff member who is conducting the Zoom call. The class, however, is fully managed by those in the Zoom room.
They create their own schedule – with assigned portions like art, music, educational discussions, games, and cooking. They also have volunteer positions for each portion of class that are rotated every few months to give others the opportunity to be more involved.
At the end of each week, they recap the program and everyone’s accomplishments by designing a newsletter with one of the staff who operate the weekly program.
See previous newsletters here.
“Weekly virtual class is an amazing opportunity for many of the people we provide services to,” said Sally Burgess, Senior Director at Citizens Options Unlimited.
The COVID pandemic restrictions caused people across the world to suffer from isolation, especially the I/DD community. 77% of national organizations serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities said they “shut down or discontinued programs as a result of challenges related to COVID-19,” according to data collected by the American Network of Community Options and Resources (ANCOR).
“The pandemic really isolated people but Gloria’s thriving and it’s because of this program,” Mary said. “Togetherness is so important, and she loves hanging out with her friends. Sometimes they shoot the breeze in there, but they also are learning.”
When asked what the best thing about Virtual Connections is, her mother Mary responded, “The comradery of the group.”
“If you’re a little late to sign on or miss a class, you know that everybody is looking for you and wondering where you are,” Mary said. “Gloria is the poster child for this program. Citizens really pioneered the Zoom experience and what attendees can accomplish.”
She is so much more self-confident lately, Mary mused. “It was always there… but Virtual Connections brought it out of her.”