In honor of late Ridgefield girl, a foundation to ‘enrich the lives’ of kids with special needs'

RIDGEFIELD — For many kids, summer camp is a big rite of passage — whether it involves going to a sleep-away camp a hundred miles away or to a day camp near home. But children with special needs are often left out of the equation, particularly if they need special equipment to take part in the fun.

A Ridgefield-based organization has helped thousands of kids with special needs get the systems and equipment they need and take part in the full range of activities that other children do — and not just summer camp. The organization, the Molly Ann Tango Memorial Foundation, was established in 2004. It bears the name of Molly Ann Tango, who was born prematurely and suffered brain damage as a result. She died in December 2003.

“We were told that Molly might not live to six months in age, yet she made it to age 10,” recalled Cathy Tango-Dykes, Molly Ann’s mom, who co-founded the group with her ex-husband, Todd Tango. While she was alive, the family often fought with insurance companies to obtain the equipment and services they knew she needed, but which weren’t deemed medically necessary by insurers.

Even when items are covered, insurance usually pays for a small fraction of the cost. Moreover, middle-class families often aren’t eligible for assistance from government-run social services organizations.

“There is so much that special-needs children need, and it can all be difficult to afford,” Tango-Dykes said. “After she died Todd and I wanted to help the many families who are middle-class like ours. Our mission is to enrich the lives of kids and their families by helping them to get what they need.”

Since its founding, the Molly Ann Tango Foundation has provided children and families with equipment such as wheelchairs and medical equipment, adaptive bikes, wheelchair ramps, lift systems and safety equipment. The foundation also makes it possible for parents to attend specialized medical conferences, to renovate their homes to make them more accessible, and to purchase specially equipped vans.

Tuition assistance for summer camp is also a big part of the mix, and it can be costly. “Camping in particular is not easy for many families to afford, and schools don’t provide a lot of services during the summer,” said Tango-Dykes. “Attending camp gives these kids something to do and for the family a bit of a respite.”

In addition, some camps provide specialized services just to children with disabilities, often with specialized conditions. One such camp is Lefty-Righty of Connecticut, or LARC, a three-week program for kids with paralysis on one side of the body.

Other camps aim to integrate kids with special needs into a mainstream camp experience. Hand in Hand, a day camp run by the Stamford Jewish Community Center, gives kids with special needs from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade with the opportunity to participate in a summer camp alongside their peers without disabilities.

“Our foundation operates from an underlying belief that special-needs kids’ lives should be as rich as any other kids… they need the summer-camp experience, too,” said Erica Mauro, a case manager for the foundation who also acts as its summer camp coordinator. “Plus, this kind of camp can be an enriching experience for those ‘typical’ kids, too.”

That need for interaction is especially acute now. When schools remained closed because of COVID-19, students suffered from a lack of interaction. This deficit affected kids with special needs more because they depend on schools for services such as behavioral counseling, speech and physical therapy.

In addition, interaction between kids with special needs and their peers is always educational, which made online classrooms a poor substitute. “Summer camp gives kids a way to make up what they might have lost during the school year,” Mauro said.

The foundation places no restrictions on requests for assistance for camp or for any kind of equipment or service. “We take every request under consideration,” said Tango-Dykes. “For campers, some families will ask for many weeks, while others will ask for just a couple of days. We do as much as we can to accommodate everyone, but what we can give depends on what we have funding for. And we want to be fair to all who apply.”

The group receives a wide range of requests. A stair lift can cost thousands of dollars, but without one a family with a child who has limited mobility might be forced to find a house that’s all on one level. This foundation can help them with such a need. Likewise, a backyard fence can provide the parents of a child with special needs with peace of mind.

“You’d never be able to call up your insurer and say, ‘I want a fence’ and have them agree,” Mauro said. “But as a parent of an autistic child, I know how necessary a fence can be. It lets kids play outside safely without wandering off the property.”

The organization is run entirely by volunteers, most of whom have a person with special needs in their families. As such it depends entirely on donations and fundraising, though it does on occasion partner with other groups to help families in need. Although fundraising is ongoing, the group’s big yearly event is its Mother’s Day Luncheon.

The luncheon always features a mother as guest speaker who explains how her own family was helped by the foundation. The event is a popular affair and Tango-Dykes approached this year’s event with some trepidation.

“Our luncheon this past May was the first we’ve had since the COVID shutdown of 2020,” Tango-Dykes said. “But we had a good turnout making this year a great return to normal.”

If you need assistance from the Molly Ann Tango Memorial Foundation, visit the group’s website at www.mollytango.org, and click on the tab “How We Can Help.” On it is an application for assistance.

Donations are welcome. Write to Molly Ann Tango Memorial Foundation, P.O. Box 15, Ridgefield, CT 06877 or send an email to info@mollytango.org. The group’s phone number is (203) 403-7070.