by Taylor Levesque, MA
Associate Program Manager, Child Services
Aspire at Mass General for Children is uniquely designed to help children, teens and adults on the autism spectrum develop positive self-awareness, stress management and social competency skills so they can succeed at home, school, work and in community settings.
For Aspire participants, success can have many different definitions. This fall, Taylor Levesque, MD, Aspire associate program manager and group facilitator, spearheaded a new special interest group known as “Changemakers’ Challenge,” which dared group members to practice collaboration, flexibility, and executive functioning skills all while giving back to the communities. The group challenged teens to find personal success in serving oLevesque says, “So much of the work we do at Aspire is helping our group members feel confident about who they are and all they have to offer. What better way to build confidence than by helping others? It’s an automatic self-esteem boost.”
The seven changemakers, teens aged 12 to 14 years, met once or twice per month his fall at Aspire’s Lexington location. Over 10 hours, they split into small-group task forces based on areas of interests. They set goals for concrete change, planned step-by-step projects to accomplish the change desired and executed their service projects in real-time. Additionally, Changemakers’ Challenge group members participated in debates on socially relevant issues and learned about relatable, modern-day changemakers such as Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg and Emma Watson. The task forces included:
Gun Control – two group members created posters calling for gun law reform. They hung these flyers at Aspire and in their communities while using social media accounts to further amplify their message. The teens created a written petition to advocate for gun control laws and collected over 15 signatures of support.
Homelessness – two changemakers started an Aspire-wide canned food drive, which ran from middle of November to early December. Through advertisements and word of mouth, they collected significantly over their goal of 50 non-perishable goods and delivered this food to the St. Patrick’s Homeless Shelter for Women in Somerville, MA.
Climate Change – three teens put together a “Silent Friday” protest to spread awareness on climate change. They brainstormed creative, realistic ways for people to participate, advertised with signage around Aspire and their communities and motivated 10 people to participate in a “Silent Friday” campaign.
Each group highlighted their successes and inspired action in others during an end-of-session Service Showcase, where they presented their projects to families, friends and the Aspire community. At this showcase, staff celebrated the over 60 hours of community service that participants amassed throughout the fall; picking up trash, baking for the elderly and service workers in their community, tutoring younger peers, and helping out at local farms. In addition to the social competency and self-awareness skills participants honed during the “Changemakers’ Challenge, Levesque feels most proud about the authentic love for service her participants gained. During a closing group session, one teen said it best, “I don’t want group to end because I want to keep volunteering!” The Aspire team couldn’t ask for a better take-away.