Standing behind the second green door in the River Forest Community Center, 8020 Madison St., is 21-year-old Sonya Taylor, who has Down Syndrome. She is waiting to open it when anyone knocks.
At Opportunity Knocks (OK), her after-school program, Sonya is in her "Warrior Wear" T-shirt, ebulliently describing the social club she's carved out at the nonprofit that Oak Parkers Phil and Michael Carmody co-founded in 2007.
Inspired by their brother, John, 25, who also has Down Syndrome, their organization serves teens to young adults, representing a range of developmental disabilities, who reside in Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park.
On this day, sitting at a long table, Sonya talks about how she "really likes hanging out with her friends … talking to, and going on dates with boys … and being with Mike Carmody," her former special education teacher from her OPRF High School CITE program (Community Integrated Transition Education) who "always makes me laugh."
In her group is 22-year-old Michael Hazinski, a young man who lives with multiple disabilities, mental and physical. Here, however, he is just the sweet, funny guy who loves books, and has an amazing memory for facts about nature, history and musical theater.
Being a member of OK's book club, and having a speaking role in the musical production of Annie, befits him, says his mom, Barbara Smith of River Forest.
John "Johno" Carmody is the so-called leader and role model — for everyone in the program.
"I have Down Syndrome, yes I do," Johno says smiling broadly. "I work at Pan's Grocery Store and Wonder Works Children's Museum, and come to Opportunity Knocks. I like being here with my friends and two brothers."
This all started, says Phil Carmody, with the realization that when John was about to turn 22, he would age out of the CITE program at the high school and have limited opportunities after that.
"We knew he was really going to struggle to find anything that would replace that outlet, so we did this for him and his friends," says Phil, a full-time firefighter/paramedic, who pitches in at OK when he can, pro bono.
During each four- or five-week session, says Michael Carmody, OK's executive director, "You name it, we've tried it," and breaks into a litany of the empowerment programming they offer, everything from playing badminton and tennis to making tie-dyed shirts, riding oversized tricycles, growing cucumbers in their OK garden, marching in parades and doing community service projects with other local groups.
"It's almost like it is cool to be developmentally disabled, because now our kids can come to this," says Smith.
Sonya's mom, Joanne Taylor, says her daughter is always talking incessantly about the latest thing she's done with her OK friends.
"She really looks forward to this," Taylor says. "Sonya comes here and can be with her peers, and she doesn't have to worry about what other people are thinking, how they are looking at her or doing strange things."
The Carmody brothers say this has always been about consistently bringing opportunities to people who had limited opportunities before.
"OK started with my four brothers and my two parents [John and Noreen]," Phil says, "and now has expanded way beyond that to more than 100 new brothers and sisters who are the architects of our programming."
Answer Book 2016
To view the full print edition of the Wednesday Journal 2016 Answer Book, please click here.
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