For 16-year-old Daniella Sallese, this summer was an opportunity to take her life experience and help other Wilton kids. She created SibSquad, an after-school club and summer camp to support and entertain siblings of children with special needs.
As Daniella was growing up, her parents were often focused on her younger sister Sophia, who is significantly hearing-impaired and faces physical challenges.
“I watched as my parents met the needs of my sister and how they were sometimes stretched thin and too exhausted to do things with me and my brother Brian,” Daniella explained.
Her parents acknowledged that Daniella and Brian need to find an outlet from their sometimes hectic home life. When they were in elementary school, they attended biannual activity nights planned specifically for siblings of children with special needs hosted by Birth to Three, which were focused on ensuring kids had a place to have fun and unwind despite the challenges they faced at home.
“What I took away from that most was seeing how the little moments in life make a difference. Even though the event only took place twice a year and only lasted two hours, it was something my brother and I always looked forward to,” Daniella recalled.
“There is a lot of disruption and sometimes even chaos in a household with special needs and I felt that it was important that I had a place to put and process things that my family and I would deal with on a regular basis,” she added.
This year, Daniella decided she wanted to bring events like the ones she had attended to the Wilton community so she could meet others with similar home experiences and provide an outlet for younger kids like herself.
In January, she worked with Dr. John Priest at Trackside to create SibSquad, an after-school club for sixth-to-10th grade siblings of children with special needs.
“The group is designed for [the] siblings to come together, spread positivity, and give back to the community through various activities while relating to and supporting one another,” described Lisa Sallese, Daniella’s mother.
Daniella and Brian, led the small group of kids through various activities including painting, writing letters to first responders, creating a kindness board to share positive messages with other teens and pre-teens, a variety of gameplay both in-person and remotely, and talking and sharing experiences with each other.
“It’s not always the easiest and there are a lot of struggles you’re facing at home. One of the takeaways from this club is that you’re not always going through it alone and there are other people out there that understand what you’re going through,” Daniella explained.
Although shared home experiences were what brought the group together, Daniella wanted to focus the club on having fun.
“It was kind of an escape away from some of the hard things at home that students were going through,” she said.
When the school year ended, Daniella approached Jim Lewicki in the Wilton Parks and Recreation Department and proposed a two-week SibSquad summer camp at Comstock Community Center for children 8-10 years old.
Daniella and Brian were joined by Alex Jelilian and Kalani Angel to lead the camp during the last two weeks of July. Summer activities included painting flower pots, playing games, decorating and writing in journals, designing t-shirts, playing Gaga ball, decorating candy jars, designing jewelry boxes, and playing outdoor games in the “SibSquad Olympics.”
One of the most memorable days for the SibSquad Camp was when Wilton Police Officer Elise Ackerman surprised the campers with a private tour of her cruiser, “or, as we called it, the honorary Squad car,” said Daniella.
Daniella’s work has had an impact, say the families of kids who participated.
“We were so thankful to Daniella for holding the SibSquad Camp,” Dana Haddox-Wright, whose daughter Clara attended the camp, said. “Often, siblings of special needs individuals have to play the role of observers to what is happening to their brothers and sisters. It is so important that they know that they are also special. The camp gave Clara a chance to hang out with some great children who go through similar things as she does. It was time spent focusing on fun and 100% devoted to them.”
Daniella feels proud of the connection SibSquad has created for the siblings.
“One of them even came up with a little hashtag that we use now: #SibSquadForLife. I thought that was really sweet, it just melted my heart.”
Anna Lupinski said it was that sense of community that made her daughter Erica feel special. “In Erica’s own words ‘I have friends for lifetime,’ and as a parent, I think that’s exactly how it will be ‘#SibSquadForLife.'”
Daniella hopes to build off the momentum from the summer and open the after-school club once again this fall.