Milford aiming for year-round special needs programs

Milford City Hall, Spring 2021

Milford City Hall, Spring 2021

Hearst Connecticut Media

MILFORD — The Milford Parks and Recreation Department’s goal has always been to have year-round special needs programs for the city —and that has now started to become a reality.

Parks and Recreation is collaborating with the Camp Happiness program to start the Milford Adaptive Programs. MAPs is a program developed to provide children, up to 18 years of age, with special needs a fun, supportive and caring environment where they can socialize and participate in age-appropriate activities.

“We’ve always had programs, but they’ve been on the sporadic side,” Parks and Recreation Director Bill Garfield said. “The goal now and the hope is that we can establish this program and run it year-round.”

“We got the winter lined up, and we are going to have the spring programming lined up. We are hoping a lot of the spring programming can be outside,” Marlene Sanchez, MAPs program director, added.

For Kathy Sturmer, having the MAPs program go until 18 years old is a blessing because her child, Evan, who has autism, is 11 years old.

“I’m really happy about that because a lot of programs, not just in Milford, cap out either 12 or 13 years old,” she said. “It’s great to have this opportunity to send Evan to the programs as he gets older. We are excited and grateful.”

Sanchez said they are aiming the program to children who have IEPs in Milford and have difficulty going into other clubs.

“We want parents to know that it’s a safe and nurturing environment,” she said. “The instructors are gearing their material for those kids so they can be successful so they can have a positive club social experience.”

Safety is an essential aspect of the program for Sturmer.

“Kids with special needs often don't know how to be safe,” she said. “But I feel 100 percent confident leaving my child at Camp Happiness because I know they make sure all the kids at the camp are safe.”

Sanchez is the director of Camp Happiness, a Milford Parks and Recreation summer camp for children ages 4 through 12 with special needs.

“Bill Garfield came up and asked if we would be interested in developing special needs programs throughout the year for children and young adults because kids could only come to Camp Happiness until they are 12,” said Sanchez.

After children age out of the program, Sanchez said there aren’t many programs geared toward them other than what is available at the local schools.

“Sometimes those are difficult to attend,” she said. “So myself and three other people from camp developed these programs, and we are starting small and slowly growing the programs we are offering.”

Sturmer said as a parent; she is grateful that in this day and age, schools and programs are including children with special needs more and more.

“When I was growing up, there was no integration with the special needs students and the general population, and it was just sad because they have a lot to give,” she said. “But now I am thrilled that more and more integration is happening.”

Because of the integration, her son, Evan, learned how to swim.

“I had him in swim classes over the summer with an adult, and he was a great swim instructor, but he didn’t learn,” she said. “When he attended Camp Happiness, there were some kids who volunteered, and he learned more from them than he did from the swim instructor, and he became a fish,” she said jokingly.

The MAPs winter programming begins in January with the first two, Tuesday night book club for teens, MAPs Yoga, starting on Jan. 4. Other programs offered are baking with Bridget, insanely fun board game club, MAPs basketball and more. However, the MAPs program officially began in September.

“All of the staff that Marlene is bringing in are all certified special education teachers or physical therapy professionals,” said Garfield. “So all of the staff is really trained and ahead of the curve in this. This staff has years of training, and they are bringing their years of experience with them to provide a solid program and experience for the kids.”

Sanchez said they want to MAPs a quality program like Camp Happiness has been.

“We want to give kids the socialization and inclusion of being a part of a group and being accepted for who they are and not for what they can’t do,” she said. “It’s amazing to see the kids interact with each other and be part of the programs.”

The fees for the different programs vary. Financial assistance is available. To sign up, go to