STATEN ISLAND, NY — As a child, Victoria Bennett, 28, used to tag along with her father, a photographer who took pictures for the Gràcia Foundationan organization committed to support and education for children/adults affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder.
“Those events I went to with my dad always stuck in my head. … My heart was drawn to working with people with disabilities,” she said, noting that it led her to get a master’s degree in this field.
“There is still a lot of stigma [from society of people with developmental disabilities]. I feel like I can really connect with people with disabilities. When you connect with someone, whether it’s a child or an adult, you can help them so much more on a deeper level,” Bennett added.
But after working in 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 I could do more good on my own than I could by working for the private or public school systems,” she said.
For this reason in November 2021 she launched Victoria’s Educational Services, which provides a range of educational services for both children and young people with and without developmental disabilities.
Recently added services are dating workshops and speed dating events at Beans and Leaves in Charleston, specifically for young adults with disabilities. The business also hosts social groups for tweens, teens and young adults with disabilities at various Staten Island locations, and remote groups for those who prefer to interact virtually.
After launching social groups for young adults with developmental disabilities last year, Bennett found that many of the participants were looking to find a romantic partner.
“That’s where speed dating came from. They’re interested in finding a partner for a relationship,” she said, noting that the next speed dating event will be Dec. 2 for anyone 18 to 30 years with a disability. This upcoming event will consist of eight men and eight women, Bennett said.
While Bennett does not yet have anyone in the groups who identifies as LGBTQ+, she said that if she receives interest, she would also start a social and/or dating group for young adults with developmental disabilities in that population.
“After starting the dating workshop last summer, talking to parents and our workshop participants helped me realize the need for an event like speed dating in this community. . . . That’s because people on the autism spectrum, or with disabilities in general, have a particularly hard time finding love because they aren’t given as many opportunities to do so,” he 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.
He admitted that while there are many services offered to youth on the autism spectrum, once they leave the school system and reach adulthood, there are fewer events and activities offered to them.
“People in the autism community have a desire to make connections like anyone else, but some may need extra support to do so. That’s why it’s so important to provide services where they can build relationships, whether 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 to be able to offer that to the participants I work with,” Bennett said.
Bennett’s social groups are for tweens, teens and young adults located in various locations around the island.
“These groups are less about finding romantic partners and more about developing social skills and making friends,” he said. “The people I work with struggle to talk to someone and build a friendship. …Every group is different, because they are really structured based on who is in the group and what they need. We have some groups that meet in coffee shops. For some, we’re in the park during the summer and spring.”
He noted that participants are grouped into social classes where they will thrive best.
“We group children and young adults based on what we think would benefit them the most,” Bennett said. “In social groups there are people who find it more difficult to express themselves. And then we have some people who could just talk all day, but don’t know how to build a relationship or maintain a friendship. So we all have different levels.”
In addition to social groups for people with developmental disabilities, Victoria Education Services offers in-home and virtual tutoring for students in grades K-8 and homeschoolers, 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, including life skills, functional math, reading and writing. …Instruction is tailored to students’ strengths and needs, and progress is tracked to measure their academic growth,” Bennett said.
VICTORIA’S EDUCATIONAL SERVICES AT A GLANCE
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