Career Path Comes Full Circle For New Canaan Y's Director Of Special Needs

NEW CANAAN, Conn. -- Carolynn Kaufman eventually reached the career goal for which she had initially set out. The Norwalk resident has served the New Canaan YMCA as its Director of Special Needs since 2011, and is responsible for the programming for nearly 100 families.

Carolynn Kaufman spends time with Ellie Routhier at a Halloween party last year at the New Canaan YMCA. Kaufman is the Director of Special Needs at the Y.
Carolynn Kaufman spends time with Ellie Routhier at a Halloween party last year at the New Canaan YMCA. Kaufman is the Director of Special Needs at the Y. Photo Credit: Courtesy of New Canaan YMCA
Carolyn Kaufman is Director of Special Needs at the New Canaan YMCA.
Carolyn Kaufman is Director of Special Needs at the New Canaan YMCA. Photo Credit: New Canaan YMCA website

The path by which she came to New Canaan, however, was anything but linear. It looks more like a clean circle, starting out with the ambition to become a special education teacher, switching focus to recreational therapy for senior citizens and then coming back to combine all of her skills into her role at the New Canaan Y.

  • Who: Carolynn Kaufman, Norwalk 
  • What: Director of Special Needs at New Canaan YMCA
  • Did you know: The New Canaan YMCA provides programs for nearly 100 familes with special needs individuals 
  • Learn more: At the New Canaan YMCA website (click here)

“There have been some twists and turns,’’ Kaufman said. "It has really came around full circle without intention.”

The New Canaan Y is one of the few in the nation to employ a full-time director to create programming for special needs people. Kaufman’s specialized programming includes yoga, gymnastics, basketball, fitness, Zumba, cooking, music, art and drama.

“Our goal is to use every area of the Y that we have available,’’ Kaufman said. “We have a very high staff to participant ratio.”

The diversity and breadth of the New Canaan Y’s programs for special needs individuals are hallmarks of the 60-year-old institution. “We try to make the Y accessible to all,’’ Kaufman said. “I think what makes us unique is our broad scope of programming. The Y in general offers so much to the community, and that extends to special needs individuals. This year we took 10 teens to Ching’s Table in New Canaan to celebrate the Chinese New Year. We’re always looking to expand out into the community and exposing kids to all we have to offer.”

Kaufman grew up in Westchester County and earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from SUNY-Albany. The plan was to follow in the footsteps of her mother, a teacher. She also earned a master's degree in recreational education from Lehman College in New York. A summer employment program with United Cerebral Palsy opened her eyes to working with people with disabilities.

“I fell in love with recreation settings vs. the classroom,’’ Kaufman said. “I did two internships at nursing homes and fell in love with programming more than the classroom.”

She spent 13 years working at nursing homes, including the last eight at Mary Manning Walsh Home in New York City as the Director of Therapeutic Recreation, where she specialized in working with patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

With her husband and two young boys, Kaufman traded in her job in the city to raise her boys. After a few years as a stay-at-home mother, Kaufman found the job in New Canaan. “When we moved out of the city I wanted to get back to working with youth,’’ Kaufman said. “Community recreation was a natural fit. Now my family belongs to the Y as well, so it’s a great fit for me professionally and personally.”

Kaufman faces some of the same challenges working with special needs children as she did working with senior citizens. “We’re constantly changing the programming to meet the needs of the clients served,’’ she said. “A program that might be successful might have to change. But from a programming aspect, it’s very similar.”

The harder challenge is funding. While the Y and its members have been generous in their support, the budget constraints are far different from working in a private nursing home. “We do a lot of fundraising and we try not to charge more because a member has special needs,’’ Kaufman said. “But we also have higher staff-student ratios. We have to be mindful of our costs, but we don’t want to turn children away.”

Kaufman said the population of special needs people continues to increase, which further strains resources. The Y, however, has maintained its commitment to serving everyone in the community. It is one of the aspects of the organization that makes it such a community treasure.

“This is an amazing opportunity to open our doors to the entire community,’’ Kaufman said. “The Y has been so supportive. All the directors are willing to help. It’s not just me on an island. When an individual with special needs walks through the door, no one bats an eye. It’s just part of our culture. It’s such an accepting atmosphere. It’s inclusion at its best.”

For more on programs at the New Canaan YMCA, click here to visit its website.

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