Diana Liedl and her children.

Elks Program Gives Young Adults With Disabilities a Chance to “ESCAPE”

The Elks have a long history of serving the special needs community. One local New Jersey Elks recently started a social club for young adults with disabilities. The ESCAPE club is a hit with young adults and their parents!

Before her twins were born, Diana Liedl didn’t really have much interaction with people with disabilities. But that all changed when her children were born three months prematurely.

“During the six months that my twins were in the hospital, I gained a lot of knowledge, and I wanted to give back. I wanted to help other parents,” she explained. So Diana, a member of the Princeton Elks #2129, became involved with the organization’s Special Children’s Committee.

“I had been a member for years, but wasn’t really involved,” Diana said. “But then I started helping out a little, and then started getting more involved, and before I knew it the chairman of the committee left, and I took over the role.” This is Diana’s first full year as the Chairman of the Special Children’s Committee, and she has some big plans. “I would love for the Elks to be a place for people who have questions about special needs to turn to for support and resources and point people in the right direction; that’s my goal.”

In New Jersey, as with other states, the Elks have a long history of helping children with disabilities. In fact, it’s a major focus area for the Elks (some of the other areas of focus are veterans, scholarships, and youth development). Every Elks Lodge supports and sends campers to Camp Moore – a free sleepaway camp for kids and adults with disabilities. Each Lodge has their own footprint of towns that they help. For example, Jack’s Kids is also part of the Somerville Elks, which helps people throughout Somerset County, by providing financial relief to parents dealing with children who have serious medical issues or disabilities. In addition, the Elks funds the Somerset Children’s Center, which provides treatment and therapy for children with disabilities. Diana’s own children get speech services there.

In addition to these state-level endeavors, every lodge has its own special children’s group, and they’re always looking for ways to help. “If a child can’t afford treatment at the Somerset Children’s Center, the local lodge can help out. For example, we’ve raised money to provide music therapy for a student with Autism. When you have a child in need, you should have less stress. We try to help with that.” Diana said. “I don’t ever want to turn anyone away because we do not have enough funds raised.”

Another way the Princeton Elks is trying to give back is by meeting the unique and specific needs of the community. So when a local parent asked Diana about setting up a social club for high functioning young adults with disabilities, she and fellow Elks Jane Maida naturally jumped at the chance.

“Parents in the community told us that after age 16, there isn’t much for kids to do. And sometimes parents and their kids just need a little reprieve. We really wanted to do something fun and educational with a social aspect.” Diana detailed.

The new program is called ESCAPE (Empowering Special Children At Princeton Elks) and it gives high-functioning adults with special needs, ages 16 and older, the opportunity to attend social events. “The program is perfect for those kids who might not be ready for mainstream social events,” Diana explained. “It’s run by volunteers, and we have about 10-15 young adults who come regularly since we started three months ago. We meet monthly and do things like have a cooking class, play board games or BINGO, make dog toys and beds for a local animal shelter, and this month we will have a special needs certified yoga instructor giving a lesson.”

The events are free, or at a low cost, so Diana is holding fundraisers (they have an upcoming Comedy Club event in April) and is applying for grants to expand the offering, based on what the program participants want to do. Some of the items on their wish list are a bowling outing, UNO tournament, movie night, and guest speakers.

In addition to the social events, the young adults who attend also get the chance to build their own independence. Initially, kids were coming with their parents, but now some are able to get dropped off. The ESCAPE program is really a win for everyone. Diana says, “The parents love it. The Elks are impressed because we are able to provide a service to the community. And the ESCAPE members love it. Some kids already knew each other. It was nice to see friendships rekindling.”

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