Organizing play dates can be challenging for parents with young children: it takes time, often costs money and requires a supportive social network. Some parents find that putting children in classes or preschool is enough to build a foundation, but others, particularly parents of children with special needs, find that type of structured environment may not be enough. To foster social relationships in the early years for children both with and without special needs, PeerPals.org offers opportunities for children to play in a fun and safe setting.
Founded in 2008 by Julie Keffer, PeerPals.org seeks to “create communities of inclusion for children with disabilities as they enter kindergarten.”
The Oyster Bay-based 501(c)3 nonprofit organization organizes individual and group play dates for kids ages 2 to 5 all across Long Island, at no cost to families.
Prior to starting the organization, Keffer, a mother of three children with special needs, was part of the federal program Partners in Policymaking, an eight-month, 140-hour course in disability advocacy, in an effort to learn how to help her own children thrive. The group consisted of parents like herself as well as self-advocates—adults who grew up with disabilities.
“As I got to know the self-advocates, I learned they all had exactly the same story,” said Keffer. “They never had friends in elementary school, never got invited on a play date and were never invited to a birthday party. As a mother of three, I was devastated.”
Living in the hamlet of Oyster Bay, she said she and her children had a positive experience.
“Still, it was alarming to know that this was not everyone’s experience,” she said.
In the spring of 2008, Keffer entered a contest held by O, The Oprah Magazine; she wrote up the framework for PeerPals.org and was one of the 80 women chosen, out of 3,000 applicants. From there, she went back to school to get a certificate in fundraising and development management.
The group started with one play date, in 2009, with 12 kids. Now, they have more than 200 families across Nassau, Suffolk, Queens and Rockland County. They set up individual play dates by matching special needs kids with typically developing kids based on age, gender and location, and hold free group play dates at places like Gymboree, Long Island Children’s Museum, Once Upon a Treetop and Kidville. Volunteers from “the world of education” are present at the group play dates, while the individual play dates are set up directly between families.
PeerPals.org is run by a board of directors and holds an annual fundraising dinner every year to support the costs of the play dates. This year they teamed up with the HPS Network for a 5K “run through history” and plan to continue that fundraiser. While based on Long Island, the broader mission of instilling compassion and inclusion means that they will not turn anyone away; families can sign up anywhere, and as the organization grows, more group play dates will follow. They just started partnering with school districts and opened a new office on Audrey Avenue in the spring.
“We’ve been growing very grassroots,” said Keffer, noting that she hopes the growth of the organization also means the “ripple effect” of its mission will take effect over the long term.
“By having kids forming friendships in these development years, you’re changing the way disability is viewed,” she said. “When you teach empathy, it’s like early intervention for bully prevention. There are people who are not just like you and that’s okay.”
“We wanted to give him as many social experiences as possible,” said Greco. “It was really beneficial for him.”
Now her middle son is 3, so she joined again and has been matched with another child in the neighborhood.
“It gives children peer role models and they get to play with kids their own age,” she said. “And for the others, it teaches them patience and that not everyone is the same. It’s a nice perspective for kids to have.”
Plus, she said, the group play dates are fun and well-organized, allowing families to experience different places—and get out of the house—while getting to know others.
She said the coolest part of getting matched for the individual play date was getting the “play date in a box,” a type of welcome package the organization sends to families to help facilitate the play dates.
“Each kid gets different pieces of a puzzle,” said Greco. “It literally forces them to interact.”
All it takes to become involved is to sign up at PeerPals.org. Emails are sent regularly to update families on upcoming play dates they can sign up for. The service and the play dates are entirely free. Call 516-922-4300 for more details.