‘Beyond the Challenge’ teaches life skills to disabled adults

by Laura Bednar

What started as a way to cover participation costs for the Special Olympics blossomed into a day program to teach adults with disabilities everyday living skills.

Independence resident Linda Tarro started the nonprofit “Beyond the Challenge” in 2010 when her daughter Tiffany, who has Down syndrome, was competing in gymnastics at the Special Olympics in Columbus. Tarro created the organization to offset costs and allow more athletes to participate.

During the pandemic, Tarro’s job coordinating sampling events for a supermarket chain was eliminated, so she had the freedom to follow her dream of starting a day program for the disabled population.

“Some people see a special needs person and treat them special,” said Tarro. “You have to treat them like everybody else. I knew they were capable and if given the opportunity, I could help them.”

Using her experience working with adults in another nonprofit, Tarro used Beyond the Challenge to launch the program in 2021.

There are currently 10 participants, ages 21 to 35. “I like it small because we can see that what we’re doing is making a difference,” said Tarro. “[Participants] have a lot of individual attention.”

Tarro rents space from Concordia Lutheran Church on Brecksville Road to conduct the program five days a week from 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. She and another teacher provide transportation to and from the program, with some participants living in Summit County.

All 10 people do not take part every day, as many have part-time jobs. Tarro’s daughter works at the Independence Civic Center, another young woman works at Sweet P’s café on Brecksville Road, one participant works at Drug Mart and TopGolf and another works for the Cleveland Browns.

“Most have outside employment,” said Tarro. “This program helps keep up communication skills and life skills.”

After graduating from high school, adults with disabilities are placed on an individual service plan, which is “a single plan for all Ohioans and individuals with developmental disabilities who receive services,” according to the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities. A service and support administrator works with the person to help create a life plan and set goals. A state waiver covers the cost for Beyond the Challenge.

In addition to Tarro, the staff consists of Trish Oswald, a former teacher at Independence Local Schools who serves as an art teacher and programmer; Dacia Pitzer, hands-on independent skills coordinator; and two volunteers, with another starting in December.

The day begins with free time so participants can interact with each other or play a game. The rest of the day focuses on teaching skills. For instance, learning to make the bed or use the tip calculator on a phone when out to eat.

Tarro takes the adults grocery shopping so they learn how to navigate the store, determine which foods are healthier and shop based on a budget.

“The program is for a person who wants to be independent and lead a healthier lifestyle,” said Tarro.

On Wednesdays the group exercises, for example, walking the Towpath Trail. “The location [of the church] is great,” said Tarro, adding that it is within walking distance of the city’s Civic Center, businesses and the park, locations where participants can practice communication skills.

Other activities include using the church kitchen to learn cooking. The Cookie Cupboard Gourmet Dough in Valley View donates pre-made cookies for the adults to bake and sell as one of many fundraisers for Beyond the Challenge.

One donor gives enough money every year to cover Special Olympics fees, and remaining funds are used to buy art supplies for the day program or pay for trips to the movies or the bowling alley.

In the future, Tarro would like the participants to take the cookie fundraiser a step further and include it as part of a coffee cart that could travel to area businesses. She said this would help the adults with their communication and money-handling skills.

“We can see growth in everyone who comes here,” said Tarro. ∞

Photo: Resident Linda Tarro (far left) started the adult day program, which currently has 10 participants. One of the other teachers for the program is Dacia Pitzer, standing to the far right behind participant Max. Other participants pictured (l-r) on the couch are Nani, Emily and Tiffany; and Adam (l) and Meghan are seated on the floor. Photo by Laura Bednar.