Sew fun: Donna Christakos helps John Carmody make a dog collar.Photos courtesy Opportunity Knocks

Many volunteers will tell you the surest way to find happiness in your own life is to help others find happiness in theirs. At Opportunity Knocks, teens and 20-somethings have found that their community service work is leading to greater self-esteem and empowerment. In reaching out to others, everyone wins in the end.

Opportunity Knocks is a non-profit organization founded in 2009 by Executive Director Mike Carmody. The program targets young adults with developmental disabilities. Carmody’s younger brother, John, has Down syndrome. In his years as a volunteer and advocate for the developmentally disabled, Carmody noticed that after a certain age, state funding virtually dries up for support services.

“Mike wanted to create something that would close that [funding] gap,” said Jonathan Adelman, a program leader for Opportunity Knocks. Adelman, who grew up with Carmody and also has a sibling with developmental disabilities, has been on board with the program from the start. It is held three times per week, in four- to five-week sessions that continue throughout the year.

One of Adelman’s main goals as a program leader is to promote self-advocacy and independence among participants as they age out of other support services and begin to find their place in the world. One way is by encouraging these young men and women to embrace community service and outreach, which also helps the non-profit give back to the community from which they’ve received so much support over the years.

“We actually have gotten most of our funding from fundraising,” said Adelman. The significance of that did not fail to register on participants. Just as people reached out to help their organization, they wanted to reach out to help others.

The first community outreach project took place in the fall of 2010, and involved a Halloween party to benefit Hephzibah Children’s Association. The Opportunity Knocks participants made the arrangements, which included a game and clothing drive, and a portion of the proceeds went to the Hephzibah kids.

The fundraiser left the Opportunity Knocks folks inspired and ready to reach out to more people in the community. The holiday season continued with a food drive to benefit the Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry, and then the participants decided to adopt three less fortunate families for Christmas gift-giving.

Adelman said the young people did it all; they picked out the families, went shopping, and selected and wrapped the gifts.

“Then we started to think about it some more,” said Kim Meares, program director for Opportunity Knocks. “We really liked this idea of community service. Everyone seemed to be learning something from it.” Not to mention, the participants and their parents were thrilled with it.

So the community outreach continued, up through the current summer session. This time around, participants made a list of three causes they cared about — the environment, animals, and children — and researched each. They eventually got a guided tour of Oak Park’s Animal Care League shelter, and an explanation of the work that the organization does for needy Oak Park animals.

“That’s where they came up with the project we’re doing right now,” Meares said.

Every Wednesday, which is community service day at Opportunity Knocks, participants tackle another aspect of the project. They made the decision to create dog collars and biscuits to sell, with proceeds going to the Animal Care League. They created the name, Collared Opportunities, and a logo for their burgeoning business. With a little bit of help and input from facilitators like Adelman, they have essentially developed their own business plan, complete with marketing ideas.

“They’ve learned how to pretty much start a business,” he said. “It’s kind of just starting to blossom into this really cool experience for everyone.”

In September, they’ll be heading to the Forest Park Farmers Market on Madison to sell their goods. According to Meares, everyone’s hoping to raise a hefty sum for the animals, but the experience itself has already had the bigger payoff.

“I don’t know what we could actually walk away with,” she said, “[but] the community here has just been so supportive of young people in general. I think anything is possible.”

Adelman agreed, saying that Collared Opportunities is empowering Opportunity Knocks participants every day. “[We’re] creating independence and making them feel that they can make their own choices,” Adelman said.

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