By Michele J. Kuhn
SHREWSBURY – Need information about Family Resource Associates (FRA) Just ask one of the agency’s new ambassadors.
The 33-year-old agency, which offers programming for individuals with disabilities from birth through adulthood, has just completed a pilot program during which 11 clients learned the skills needed to represent the organization in public and promote the image of FRA.
“Over all the years we’ve been in existence, we’ve seen our people grow and become adults,’’ said Susan Levine, the administrator for infant programs who is one of FRA’s co-founders. “We see them as the face of FRA and we believe they can act as ambassadors for the agency.
“People with disabilities should have a significant role in the community and can be advocates for programs they believe in,” Levine said. “They can be our best advocates, our best voices.”
The 11 new ambassadors were inducted last month during a special ceremony. Each had to introduce himself to the audience and give a speech. The new advocates also received personalized business cards.
The cards, Levine said, were the idea of one of the clients. He realized that if the ambassadors were expected to meet people and tell them about the agency, they should have something to hand to them so they knew who to call for more information. “He understood the role of the ambassador,” Levine said proudly.
FRA, a private, nonprofit agency, has been providing services for people with a wide variety of disabilities, including Down syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy. The organization’s motto is: Creating possAbilities for people with disAbilities” with a special emphasis on the word “abilities.” The ambassador program is seen as another opportunity for clients to grow and cultivate new skills and abilities.
Organization officials expect the new advocates to represent them at various events, including fundraisers and social functions, and offer tours at the agency’s 35 Haddon Ave. facility when parents and others are interested in finding out about FRA.
Three ambassadors have already helped at FRA’s recent golf outing. They sold raffle tickets, directed golfers to where they needed to go and one woman gave her induction speech during the banquet. “They did a beautiful job,” Levine said.
Agency staff also expect the ambassadors to assist in the fall during the organization’s annual gala. They will begin attending FRA board meetings and eventually, it is hoped, an ambassador will become a boardmember.
The program was developed last fall. Adult clients were invited to file a formal application and go through an interview process. Eleven decided to apply and all were eventually inducted as ambassadors. But before the induction, the men and women had to go through a six-session training program. During half-hour seminars they learned about social courtesies, public speaking, presenting themselves in public and the requirements for the position.
“The program emphasized having a public face, putting your best foot forward,” Levine said.
One of the new ambassadors, Thomas Castellano, a friendly man, obviously learned his lessons well. Castellano, 25, of Freehold, greeted visitors with a firm handshake, looking them squarely in the eye, with a wide smile that lets a visitor know how proud he is of his new role.
“I like talking to people,” said Castellano, who has a significant speech delay and hearing issues. An accomplished swimmer in the Special Olympics program, he has taken every program FRA has to offer, except karate. He has particularly enjoyed dance and yoga.
“It’s a wonderful thing for both sides,” said Thomas’ mother, Joanne Castellano, who works for the agency. “For FRA, for new parents coming here for the first time, those who are giving donations, they can see what the agency does. They get to meet the type of people we help. For Thomas, it’s a way of giving back to an agency that has done so much for him and it gives him a sense of pride.
“For the students, the way it was set up with the classes they had to attend, it gave them so much pride in themselves that they would be representing FRA. It made them eager to be a part of it,” Joanne Castellano said.
In addition to Castellano, the new FRA ambassadors, who range in age from 22 to 33, are Catherine Ehlinger, Elizabeth “Bizzy” Ford, Marcus Hannah, Deanna Jimenez, Lindsey Keune, Joe Martinelli, Eileen Merritt, Kerry Potestivo, Michael Sant and Tara Anne Waters.
Additional information about Family Resource Associates Inc. and the ambassador program is available by calling 732-747-5310 or at www.frainc.org.