STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — As a child, Victoria Bennett, 28, used to tag along with her father, a photographer who shot photos for the Grace Foundation, an organization committed to support and education for children/adults impacted by autism spectrum disorder.
“Those events I went to with my dad always stuck in my mind. … My heart was drawn toward working with people with disabilities,” she said, noting this led to her obtaining a master’s degree in the field.
“There’s still so much of a stigma [from society of people with developmental disabilities]. I feel like I can really connect with people with disabilities. When you connect to someone, whether it’s a kid or an adult, you can help them so much more on a deeper level,” added Bennett.
But after working in both public and private schools for about five years, Bennett realized she didn’t feel fulfilled.
“I loved the students I worked with, but I knew that I could do more good on my own than I could working for the private or public school systems,” she said.
For this reason in Nov. 2021 she launched Victoria’s Educational Services, which offers an array of educational services for both children and teenagers with and without developmental disabilities.
Recently added services are dating workshops and speed dating events at Beans and Leaves in Charleston, specifically for developmentally disabled young adults. The business also hosts social groups for preteens, teenagers and young adults with disabilities in various locations on Staten Island, and remote groups for those who prefer to interact virtually.
After launching social groups for developmentally disabled young adults last year, Bennett found many of the participants were looking to find a romantic partner.
“This is where the speed dating came from. They’re interested in finding a partner for a relationship,” she said, noting the next speed dating event is Dec. 2 for anyone ages 18 to 30 with a disability. This upcoming event will consist of eight men and eight women, said Bennett.
While Bennett doesn’t yet have anyone in the groups who identify as LGBTQ+, she said if she received interest, she would start a dating and/or social group for developmentally disabled young adults in this population as well.
“After starting the dating workshop this past summer, talking to the parents and participants of our workshop helped me realize the need for an event, like speed dating, in this community. … This is because people on the autism spectrum, or with disabilities in general, have an especially tough time finding love since they aren’t given as many opportunities to do so,” she said.
“The participants I work with are so kind and have so much to offer, they deserve to find love just like anyone else,” Bennett added.
She admitted that while there are a lot of services offered to younger people on the autism spectrum, once they grow out of the school system and reach adulthood, there are fewer events and activities offered to them.
“People in the autism community have a desire to build connections like anyone else does, but some may need extra support in doing so. That’s why it’s so important to provide services where they can build relationships, whether it be romantic or platonic. It’s part of human nature to want to fit in, to be part of a community, to have a network of friends, and I’m grateful that I can offer that to the participants I work with,” Bennett said.
Bennett’s social groups are for pre-teens, teenagers and young adults who meet in a various locations across the Island.
“These groups are less about finding romantic partners, and more about developing social skills and making friends,” she said. “The people I work with struggle with how to talk to someone and build a friendship. …Every group is different, because they’re really structured based on who is in the group and what they need. We have some groups that meet at cafes. For some, we meet in the park during the summer and spring.”
She noted that participants are grouped in social classes where they will best thrive.
“We group kids and young adults based on what we think would benefit them the most,” said Bennett. “In the social groups, we have some people who have more of a hard time expressing themselves. And then we have some people who could just talk all day, but they don’t know how to build a relationship or maintain a friendship. So we have all different levels.”
In addition to social groups for people with developmental disabilities, Victoria’s Educational Services provides in-home and virtual tutoring for students grades K-8 and homeschooled students, with and without disabilities.
“We have excellent special education and general education teachers who provide tutoring services. We also offer tutoring services for adults with disabilities, such as life skills, functional math, reading and writing. …Instruction is tailored to the students’ strengths and needs, and progress is tracked to measure their academic growth,” said Bennett.
VICTORIA’S EDUCATIONAL SERVICES AT A GLANCE
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