MODESTO — The most important qualification that program manager Josh Branco looks for in employees and volunteers at Connections Family Center in Modesto is a CPA.
Confused as to why a United Cerebral Palsy-backed facility serving children, families and senior citizens puts a premium on being a certified public accountant?
In this case, "CPA" is quick-witted Branco's acronym for "certified positive attitude."
He coined it Friday morning during the center's holiday day camp, while talking about what it takes to work with children who range from being high achieving to having special needs. Around him, kids were at various times strumming his guitar, building jigsaw puzzles and playing with wheat- and gluten-free craft dough.
This is the third day camp Connections has held since opening its doors last December on West Rumble Road. It held a winter break camp then, followed by a summer break camp. The current session began Dec. 17 and wraps up Jan. 4. Each day includes group activities, crafts, enrichment time, independent play, a much-loved cooking session and snacks. The kids also take occasional field trips, such as bowling or visiting the Great Valley Museum.
About 15 children are enrolled in the session, and about a third have disabilities, Branco said. "Autism is what we see mostly," he said. "I've had kids with Down syndrome, too. Then we have kids who are really high achievers, in GATE and the like."
Integration, inclusion, mainstreaming whatever you choose to call it isn't a stated mission of the camps, he said, but he's certainly seen it benefit children all across the spectrum. Speaking of a little girl named Ellie the one who was strumming his guitar Branco said, "She's hard of hearing, and uses sign language a lot. Most of the sign language I know, I learned from her. Other kids have learned some sign language from her, too."
This kind of peer learning has occurred, he said, because some of the children have attended all three Connections camps.
A range of abilities
In Branco's experience, it's rare for a facility to serve children with such a range of abilities. "Most places I've worked with don't really do that, because it's hard," he said. "The staff here did a whole week of training for this camp," learning not just the basics of child care, but what behaviors are exhibited by children with autism and other conditions, and how to address such behaviors.
"I think what we do is awesome because it's a mix of all abilities all shapes and sizes and not a lot of places do that," said camp counselor Autumn Bradley. She joined Connections for its summer day camp and returned for holiday camp. She works with Connections when school isn't in session, as her primary work is with Ceres Unified and the Stanislaus County Office of Education as a long-term classified sub, working with special-needs children.
"There's also the importance of balance," Branco added. "A lot of these kids need specific attention, but you also have to keep in mind not to leave the other kids out."
Still, the training a person has had isn't the best gauge of how he or she will work with the kids, he said. "I feel that if you have the right demeanor, you'll be able to do it." After all, the purpose Connections serves isn't that of a school, he said it's about socializing.
"Kids with autism can struggle with the social norms, like standing in line and waiting their turn," Branco said. He pointed out one boy, Camden, who once would have pretty much run around all day if allowed to, but on Friday morning was sitting nicely, building a jigsaw puzzle on the floor with other kids.
Scott Webb, chief executive officer and president of United Cerebral Palsy of Stanislaus and Tuolumne Counties, hired Branco as Connections' program director. He said that while Branco has a "great background" a history degree from California State University, Chico, with an objective of becoming a teacher, experience working in after-school programs and youth sports and at the YMCA's Camp Jack Hazard it indeed is the young man's demeanor that impressed him the most.
Try at least one new thing
"The job he did as summer director up there at Camp Jack Hazard; I did that job for many years, so knew what he had to do to be successful," said Webb, former executive director of the Carole Sund/Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation and once chief operating officer of YMCA of Stanislaus County. "Anybody can get a degree, can work a program, but that positive can-do attitude is what impressed me he's just outstanding.
"In working with kids one of the things you need to give them is the belief they can do anything. (At Connections Family Center), we're trying to give kids that feeling of success. Whether in culinary program, making a good-tasting dish, or on sports, making a basket in basketball or catching your first fish, we want them to not fear trying new things. All children need to be encouraged to try things."
Branco is all about that. In fact, he's encouraged kids to try at least one thing most grown-ups would cringe at: painting his car. It was during summer camp, when one theme was time travel and the children journeyed through the decades of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, doing things that symbolized those decades, like making pet rocks and tie-dyeing.
But what's time travel without a time machine?
"I let the kids paint my car with washable paint," turning it into a chronological cruiser. "I got some looks driving that around town."
Bee city editor Deke Farrow can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2327.
CONNECTIONS FAMILY CENTER
Connections Family Center opened last December as a division of United Cerebral Palsy of Stanislaus and Tuolumne counties. It offers programs and services to people of all ability levels, specializing in serving youth and families, but also aiding seniors. Programs include:
Seasonal day camps
Referrals to senior employment services
Trips and tours
Says Scott Webb, chief executive officer and president of UCP Stanislaus: "We want to see it become a real community center for all children and families. We want to provide support to families whether that's classes or child care summer opportunities. When they're out of school is when kids either start to get in trouble or discover new interests. It can go either way, so we want to create those new interests."
On the Net: www.connectionsfc.org