A Place to Gather
Sphere: helping adults with disabilities for 30 years
Members of Sphere’s art class gather at the group’s headquarters on Main Street.
In the early 1970s, educational experts told Christine and Michael Steele that the only reasonable option for preschool-aged Jocelyn was institutionalization. Instead, the Steele family sought out other resources for children with intellectual disabilities. Jocelyn eventually went to Westport’s Staples High School, which had a program for students with special needs. There, she joined Special Olympics, becoming a skilled Alpine skier, and participated in CLASP of Westport, where the Steeles met other families. As Jocelyn’s formal education drew to a close, the family became alarmed at the dearth of adult programs in the Ridgefield area.
Meanwhile, in another corner of Ridgefield, the Moomaw family was grappling with the challenge of finding opportunities for son John Andrew, who had found comfort in therapeutic riding group Pegasus, various arts programs, and work at Stop & Shop and CVS. But he too felt isolated and dependent on his parents for social experiences. That is when the Steeles, Moomaws, and others came together to build an organization that today provides programs for more than 60 disabled adults.
Meeting on a regular basis, the families developed programs that covered the performing and fine arts, recreation, and socialization. The performing-arts group rehearsed and produced two plays a year, including Little Shop of Horrors and West Side Story. Weekend field trips brought members to local lakes for water skiing and boating. The summer art program, run by art teacher Carolyn Daher, met on Thursday evenings at Jesse Lee Methodist Church.
In 1988, the families recognized that the time had arrived to legalize their organization. With the pro-bono help of Mary Gelfman and Sharon Dornfeld, SPHERE (Special People’s Housing, Education, Recreation, Employment) was born: “to enrich and enhance the lives of adults through education, recreation and the arts while fostering and nurturing relationships between our members and our communities.” Sphere no longer uses the acronym—as housing and employment are not a part of the mission—but the passions and determination of its founding families remain.
Valerie Jensen moved to Main Street in 2002 and heard of a theater group rehearsing across the street at the Jesse Lee Church and decided to “just show up” at one of the rehearsals. Val was not a newcomer to the world of special needs, having grown up with a younger sister, Hope, who has Down Syndrome. With a dual Master’s degree in elementary education and special education, Val joined her deep commitment to education with her love of performance to assist in Sphere productions, eventually directing Alice in Wonderland and adapting other scripts. In 2004, when Ghislaine Moomaw decided to retire as board chair, Jensen stepped into the leadership role.
Over time, Jensen came to believe that film would be the right medium to bring the talents of special needs adults to a larger audience, so she shifted the performance program from shows to film production: Shakesphere: A Retelling of Romeo and Juliet, Sparkle Island, and The Bride of Frankenstein became award-winning films at festivals including the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival; the Garden State Festival, and the Vegas Independent Film Festival. Jensen’s years at Sphere shaped the principles that later defined the mission of the Prospector Theater, which she founded: meaningful employment for adults with disabilities. Jensen is responsible for the employment of more than 100 adults with disabilities today.
During her tenure, Sphere members increased their participation in town events including the Christmas Tree Lighting at Town Hall, ROAR events, and the Memorial Day Parade. And in 2012 the group purchased the Sphere bus, with the help of Jensen’s attorney sister Rebecca Ciota, and their father, Don Ciota. Today the Sphere bus transports members to evening programs as well as to field trips and performances throughout the area.
When Lori Berisford, already a board member since 2009, took on the role as board chair in 2014, Sphere had grown in complexity. Her first task was to build a board that would face the challenges of an ever-increasing population and extensive programming. Berisford had been drawn to Sphere after she saw her seventh-grade daughter, Lane, freeze at the sight of disabled adults. Eventually Lane met Sphere members and attended Thursday-evening music programs. Soon, dancer Lane was choreographing routines for performances. When Lane came to music and theater class every Thursday night for two years, so did Lori, so she knew the members and how the organization worked and soon joined the board.
Now, three years after Lori took over the chairmanship, Sphere provides programs for some 60 adults with disabilities, offers four nights of classes and two afternoons of activities, and has become increasingly visible to the community. Every day someone is touched by something begun over 30 years ago by the Steeles and the Moomaws and many others who knew that they had to act so that their children would not be left behind.