“I learned the value of hanging out with people who have the same disabilities I have but who are active and willing to go places and experience things they have heard about but never really been to.” — Max Black, Aktion Club member
MOUNT VERNON — Volunteering is an excellent way to meet new friends and benefit the community. However, adults with disabilities are frequently introverted and have difficulty adapting to new situations.
For 15 years, the Knox County Aktion Club has successfully bridged that gap, bringing out hidden talents while helping others. Aktion Club might be one of the county’s best-kept secrets regarding community service.
“The whole thing behind Aktion Club is for people to find friends and to give back to the community through community service,” club advisor Jeanette Carpenter said.
Carpenter, who serves as client and housing advocate for Knox County DD, said club members want to be productive members of society. Part of that involves experiencing new things.
“People say you can’t choose if you don’t know it. We try and do one community service project and one fun thing every month,” she said.
Mount Vernon resident Mark Stryker has seen a significant change in his son Cole since Cole became involved with Aktion Club 11 years ago.
“Friends,” Mark said. “It was hard for Cole to meet friends before. They do community projects, book bags, and cards. Now he opens up more and participates more. Being involved with this has really opened the doors for things.”
Aktion Club is the only service organization for adults with disabilities. The Kiwanis Club of Mount Vernon sponsors the Knox County Aktion Club.
Carpenter, a long-time Kiwanis member, joined Knox DD in 1996. In 2008, Kiwanians decided to start an Aktion Club and asked Carpenter if she would be willing to be the advisor.
“Uh, yes,” Carpenter recalls saying at the time. “Since then, it has just morphed into absolute craziness. In a good way.”
When Knox DD Superintendent Steve Oster asked Carpenter if she would go full time working with the group, she didn’t hesitate.
In her role as client advocate, Carpenter encourages independence and responsibility. Aktion Club promotes those goals through Project STIR (Steps Toward Independence and Responsibilities) and other programs.
“It’s giving them a voice to speak up and say what they want to do, whether in Aktion Club or in a group in general,” she explained. “It’s helping folks be an advocate for themselves. If you’re a friend, speak up for them as well.”
Carpenter said the programs are working.
“They are now sitting on boards; they are sitting on committees. They are taking pride in what they are doing and wanting to do more,” she said of Aktion Club members. “We have people going out on projects as a trainer and as trainers for project STIR.”
The Value of Aktion Club
“The value is people getting to know their community and giving back to the community. It might be in a small way, but it’s giving back,” Carpenter explained.
The short list of giving back includes visiting nursing homes, helping Habitat for Humanity and the humane society, and holding food drives. During COVID, they adopted graduates, dropped off baskets, and congratulated them on graduating.
2023 projects include:
- Filling backpacks with school supplies for middle school students
- Cards and gifts for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Veterans Day
- Adopting a family and collecting paper products for food pantries
In addition to community service projects, club members go on outings. Trips include basketball and hockey games, The Wilds, concerts, and the theater.
“Not only are they getting out into the community, they are learning leadership … making events happen, determining what must happen and making it happen. Learning how to speak up for themselves in the correct way, problem solving, negotiation skills,” Carpenter said.
“It includes leadership skills, not being afraid to stand up for themselves. It helps them to be a part of the community. It gives them choices – if I never had that experience, I don’t know if I like it.
“I love to see that and I love to hear that.”
Does Aktion Club work?
There might not be hard data to quantify the effect Aktion Club has. But the members feel it, and families and caregivers see it.
Crystal, a long-time member and Aktion Club president, said she likes to help people do things.
“I didn’t like meeting people. As president, I learned how to speak in front of people,” she said.
“I learned the value of hanging out with people who have the same disabilities I have but who are active and willing to go places and experience things they have heard about but never really been to,” Max Black said.
• “It’s gotten me out of my comfort zone, talking and meeting people. I never liked group settings before, and I am now in a group setting.” — Cheyenne
• “I get to see the community and friends and have adventures and trips.” — Rose
• “I like to go on trips. I met a lot of friends.” — Terri
• “Aktio Club has helped me be more confident. I want to do more fun things with people and meet new people and have new friends.” — Dameon
• “It helps get me out of the house and get moving.” — Shaun
“We do things – brown bag lunch at the park and have fun together. We just socialize. The number 1 rule here is have fun – I like that,” said Tyler, who joined the club about a year ago.
Increased confidence, being active, helping people and the community, and talking to people are a few of the things Tony likes about Aktion Club.
“I am a shy person,” he said.
“This brought him out of his shell,” said Tyler.
“Socialization to me would be the biggest plus. Aktion Club gives them a chance to interact and have fun,” said Tony and Tyler’s direct support person. “They get to do art and it gives them a chance to do math.”
Above and beyond
Each year, the Ohio District of Kiwanis seeks out Aktion Clubs that have exceeded expectations and presents one club with the Tom E. Crawford Service Award.
Last September, the award went to the Knox County Action Club.
Richard Brulotte, Ohio District Kiwanis Aktion Club administrator, issued the challenge: Gather items for a needy family to provide a proper birthday for a youngster who might not have been able to celebrate.
Brulotte said that while it was a simple project, for Knox County, it became a chance to broaden the experiences of club members, who went beyond merely collecting and assembling Birthday Bags.
“Members identified and reached out to a local food bank to discuss the possibility of doing a joint project,” he said at the award presentation. “They went on to plan and organize a drive which would ultimately collect food, paper products, and gift cards. Members determined what other items they needed to complete their Birthday Bags, shopped for them, and identified the best process for assembling the bags. Finally, a small group of members delivered the bags in person to the food bank and realized a job well done.”
“I never got an award. It’s nice to have your hard work pay off,” Stacy Grassbaugh, vice president of Knox County’s club, said. “I am glad and excited.”
“During the pandemic when many clubs were struggling to meet, let alone do community service, it was obvious to me the Knox County Aktion Club was unique,” Brulotte said. “Not only did they manage to hold club meetings, but they also met as a group to connect and do things as part of a book club, movie night, and other activities. It did not surprise me that post-pandemic, the Knox County Aktion Club was still doing wonderful things.”
Knox DD superintendent Oster is proud of Knox County’s Action Club and its achievements.
“You guys do so much stuff that benefits people in the community. I appreciate what you do, and you have a fun time while you are doing it,” he told the group.
There are 36 Aktion Clubs in 35 Ohio counties with about 600 members. Aktion Club is in 15 countries and has more than 12,000 members worldwide.
Brulotte, who serves as the liaison between the Ohio District and Kiwanis International, said there are challenges for the program as a whole.
“Membership is always a problem. For instance, our Ohio clubs are still rebuilding after COVID,” he said.
COVID affected Knox County, too.
“We chartered in 2008 with 15 people,” Carpenter said. “Before COVID, we probably had about 70; now we are working our numbers back up. We might have 30 or 35.”
While Carpenter said Knox County was fortunate to have support and funding from the start, Brulotte cited support as another challenge facing Aktion Clubs in general.
“Individuals with disabilities want to enjoy friendships with others, build confidence and work skills, and welcome opportunities to build their leadership skills,” Brulotte said. “It is not that they are not interested, but that they need to discover what they can do on their own.
“Most want to be included and looked upon as being capable individuals. Aktion Club offers that opportunity,” he added.
However, Brulotte said things like transportation and assistance or supervision by an aide’s schedule and availability often come into play.
“Many times the disabled individual may have scheduling problems themselves,” he said.
For her part, Carpenter is enjoying advising Aktion Club members and watching them grow and experience new things.
“I want them to do things without me. They are calling each other and going together to see a movie,” she said. “That’s my whole goal, to work myself out of a job.”