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Fox Point — Fourteen-year-old Mande Matheis enjoys art, yoga and spending time with her friends.

But Mande, who is autistic with cognitive delays, didn't always have such a vibrant social life. Her parents, Shannon and Erick, struggled for years to find opportunities for socialization and recreation for their daughter. The few programs that they did find would be a half-hour drive away, or would not fully adapt to Mande's special needs.

Shannon said it was "a life-saver" when they learned about the STARS program at the Harry and Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, which is just minutes away from their home in Fox Point.

"I don't have to feel like I have to protect her," Shannon Matheis said of STARS program. "I know that she is safe, and that even if she is challenged, it's going to be a positive experience."

STARS, which stands for Students That Are Really Special, offers after-school and weekend programming during the school year for individuals with and without disabilities. After she finishes her day at Maple Dale School, she goes to yoga on Mondays, music therapy on Tuesdays and art therapy on Thursdays. The JCC programming is especially valuable during the middle school years, when other students have athletics and other extra-curriculars in the after-school hours.

Mande's first experiences with STARS weren't easy. Her parents and a therapist used to accompany her to classes, and she would often get angry and frustrated in the middle of lessons. Now, four years later, Mande no longer needs an aid, a therapist or her parents. She also acts as a mentor to younger children in the group.

"We look to Mande as a leader in so many of our programs," said Jody Margolis, director of JCC Center for Inclusion and Special Needs. "I remember there was this moment about a year and a half ago when Mande reached out to a young girl who looked so scared and so frightened because it was her first day. Mande walked right up to her and said, 'Come with me. I'll be your friend.' She has turned into a very friendly person."

Shannon and Erick said the socialization and learning that occurs through the STARS program has made Mande more patient, confident, attentive and emotionally flexible. For the last two years, she has not needed an aid during her art therapy time at Maple Dale School. She has grown so fond of yoga that she hopes to become a yoga instructor and works as a peer mentor with her yoga instructor at another facility.

Mande and other STARS participants look forward to visits about three times per year from Upstream Arts, a Minneapolis-based arts education organization that uses art to develop social and communication skills in children and young adults with disabilities.

"The arts is a great place to play-act and practice expressing themselves in authentic social experiences," said Julie Guidry, executive director of Upstream Arts.

Guidry said she and her art teachers have seen Mande grow in her independence and communication skills. As Mande's mother Shannon pointed out, Mande makes sure to remind her parents to sign her up for STARS classes because it is something she values.

"She knows how to advocate in a way that is incredibly important for all of us to be doing," Guidry said.

Enrollment is open for people interested in joining the upcoming Sunday STARS series with Upstream Arts. The classes will be held on Jan. 29, Feb. 5 and Feb. 12 at the JCC. Those interested in attending should contact Margolis at 414-967-8206.

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