Fostering a sense of belonging through group mentoring

PYD has been offering mentoring programs to young people with disabilities for over 35 years; mentoring is the core of what we do. Over the years, additional programs have been added, including Access to Theater, Career Readiness, Youth Leadership Forum, and Young Leaders Rising, and while the programs may focus on career and leadership skill building, mentoring remains the foundation of all youth programming.

At first glance, PYD’s Access to Theater (ATT) program is an inclusive theater arts program for teens and young adults. Participants explore performing arts and all aspects of theater, including acting, directing, improvisation, choreography, music, costumes, set design, and more. Yet, youth gain much more than theater experience.

Jamie Wellington has been involved with ATT for 18 years. “What ATT has taught me is to prove people wrong and set an example for those around me in the disability community as well as the abled bodied world,” she said. “I want to leave a legacy behind. That is what ATT is – a legacy.”

The format of ATT lends itself naturally to group mentoring. Lead by Artistic Director Deep Chinappa, participants are guided by facilitators Maureen Finnerty and Tammy Brown. Americorp Ambassador of Mentoring and ATT alum Lizzy Grey also served as a mentor to youth for the past year. “I make huge efforts to create the environment,” Deep said. “The teaching artists go out of their way to accommodate each participant with their learning styles and any other related things they may have just to make them feel part of this group.”

Dynamic programming like ATT provides mentoring opportunities not only from PYD staff, but youth as well. Peers often encourage each other to explore new things and express themselves. “My peers are a big source of support,” Jamie said. “I feel like I can be uninhibited at ATT and really be myself.”

Despite moving meetings online in March 2020, youth engagement has remained high. Themes are introduced at each weekly meeting – held in fall, spring, and summer sessions – to prompt creativity and self-expression. ATT has developed a community of support, encouragement, collaboration, and increased confidence for participants. Youth are empowered to explore personal development in a safe and non-judgmental setting.

“I was shy and scared when I joined ATT, but the young teenagers welcomed me,” participant Tatiana said. “Everyone made me feel happy and comfortable and made me feel like part of a family. I told my mom I found my second home.”

ATT’s purpose to develop communication, artistic, and leadership skills, and lasting friendships was evident on August 4th when over 20 participants and staff came together for the ATT Summer Institute show via Zoom. The youth worked together to give an original performance that featured dialogue developed and acted by youth, including a newsroom style interpretation on events meaningful to them, including USA gymnast Simone Biles’ withdrawal from Olympic events to support her mental health needs. Watch the ATT performance here.

ATT fostered a sense of belonging when group opportunities became scarce during the pandemic. Whether virtual or in-person, ATT provides a critical connection to peers and the community for youth with disabilities. “When programs went online it helped me to connect to the community,” ATT participant Cody Rooney said. “Being able to connect has helped me more than anyone knows.”

Learn more about how ATT is fostering a sense of belonging in the below video: