Junior starts group to ‘adopt’ children with special needs

Junior Emily Dilly kept getting invited to “Adopt a Senior” Facebook pages. 

The groups were designed to pair members with a graduating senior who had been affected by the coronavirus. As the notifications continued to roll in, Dilly was reminded of another group of people who’d been affected by the pandemic: those with special needs.

“I just kept thinking, ‘Yeah, this has to be super hard for seniors, but there are other people that are really struggling with this sudden change in routine,”’ Dilly said.

Inspired, Dilly decided to create an “Adopt a Friend with Unique Abilities” Facebook page. The page is a platform for members to post about someone with special needs. Others will “adopt” that individual, volunteering to send their “adoptee” a care package filled with their favorite things, pictures of the “adopter” and cards.

She started the group on May 1 after a road trip with her husband to northern Minnesota was delayed by a flat tire. “The trip was super long, so I decided to create the page right then and there,” Dilly said.

Dilly has seen first-hand how hard the coronavirus has impacted those with special needs. Her 14-year-old brother Connor has Down syndrome and autism, and she works with those with special needs as an Augie Access peer navigator, staff member for Augustana’s FRIENDSLink, respite care provider and assistant state director for South Dakota Miss Amazing. She said she wanted to do something to brighten people’s days and make them smile.

Augustana special education professor Michelle Powers, whose youngest daughter is on the autism spectrum, was invited to the Facebook page by one of her friends who also parents a child on the spectrum. Although she hasn’t joined yet because of her busy teaching schedule and homeschooling her children, she said she has seen other families on the site.

“It is clear they are having wonderful experiences with getting notes and small gifts from the people who’ve “adopted” a child on the page,” Powers said. “I love the kindness and caring that this particular Facebook group promotes for our children with special needs.”

Because people on the autism spectrum are immunocompromised, the coronavirus has forced many to self-quarantine. Powers said so many children, like her daughter, are not getting out into the community right now. 

“Their current world is very small, and at times, can be pretty dreary with just mom, dad and the same “boring” siblings,” Powers said. “Emily and the people “adopting” our children are just trying to make each day for these children a little better while we are all trying to stay safe during the COVID-19 quarantine. As a parent of a child with autism, I know there are amazing people in our community who care deeply about her and all our children with special needs.”

In the two weeks since Dilly created the group, 65 individuals have been “adopted” and 433 members have joined the page. Dilly said she expects this number to keep rising as more people join and invite their own friends and family. The page is private, but Dilly said those interested can search for “Adopt a friend with unique abilities – Tri State Area” and request to join.

Dilly said she had originally intended for the page to be “a COVID time kind of group,” but after consulting with other group members, she has decided to leave it open indefinitely.

One group member told Dilly, “I think it would be great to continue this group past the COVID period. I suspect that connections will be made that we won’t want lost! I think the group that has been brought together is truly unique and a solid, supportive community is being built.”

Dilly said she is amazed by how fast a lot of the individuals have been “adopted.” Parents of kids who’ve been adopted have started sharing pictures and videos of their children receiving their packages.

“I cry every single time,” Dilly said. “Seeing their reactions and the joy they radiate when receiving a gift from a total stranger is why I started this in the first place.”

“I hope that this group can create meaningful and lasting friendships and relationships between adopter and adoptee,” Dilly said. “I hope that this group continues to grow so that we can make even more days brighter.”

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