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07/20/2022 08:20 AM

Neurodiversity Celebrated with Dilger Award

While scholarships awarded for achievements in academics and athletics are common, the Deep River-based nonprofit A Little Compassion (ALC) is breaking the mold with the Alexandra Dilger Award, given to young, neurodiverse people between the ages of 18 to 30 who have reached their personal and professional goals.

“We’re looking to find those young adults who haven’t had the opportunity to be part of an award in any way because of their neurodiversity,” said Jane Moen, executive director of ALC.

The three recipients of the award this year are all working towards their own goals in education, business, and environmentalism, while as part of the award, ALC will be offering financial assistance to the recipients.

Nicole Ringuette of Moodus is looking to become a special education teacher, with the goal to “help my students believe in themselves and know that there is someone who believes in them.” Ringuette has dyslexia, and receives specialized personal tutoring in helping her in completing assignments and with time management. In hopes to earn her master’s degrees at the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford, ALC will be paying for a semester’s worth of tutoring to assist her in realizing her vocation.

Anthony Joia of Deep River, a part-time student at Middlesex Community College, is focused on working towards a degree in environmental science aand is pursuing a path of becoming a park ranger. As part of the award, ACL has purchased Joia's new laptop and an echo pen with a recording function, which will help with taking notes to ease studying.

The third recipient, Sam Wollscheager, also of Deep River, is a “budding entrepreneur and businessman”, according to ALC, whose homemade soaps named “Sam’s Suds,” are available for purchase at The Nest Coffee House, 162A Main Street, Deep River. ALC’s contribution included in the Dilger Award is the providing of molds, tools, and packages in helping him grow his businesses, and also that of a professional who can help Wollscheager in developing and implementing a business plan.

ALC created the award in 2019 in memory of Deep River resident Alexandra Dilger, with the help of her parents, Gale and Patrick Dilger. Dilger passed away at 21 whilst pursuing an undergraduate degree and was hoping to continue on to graduate school. Dilger struggled with anxiety and depression, but possessed a passion for travel and the arts of all kinds. As she was an avid reader, a small bookshelf at ALC’s The Nest Coffee House program called the “Lending Library” memorializes Dilger.

In recognition of their late daughter’s personal goals, Dilger’s parents sought to lift up young adults with an award that acknowledges the goals of neurodiverse young adults, who are often not their high school’s or college’s star football player or top academic.

The selection process behind the award consists of an eight-person committee, with representation from ALC’s board, the Dilger parents, and members of the community interested in ALC’s mission in providing skills and confidence to young people with intellectual or mental disabilities for future employment opportunities. According to Moen, the selection process does not follow the same criteria as those that would award scholarships for academic or athletic achievements, rather identifies an individual's goals, what may cause a hindrance in reaching those goals, and what can be done to assist in realizing them.

“We didn’t want to make this an award that was entirely based on your aptitudes and abilities, or financial need either,” said Moen. “We wanted it to be based on who you are as a person, and what are your goals, and how can we help you to get there.”

The nomination aspect of the selection process, unlike what is found in scholarships in athletics or academics, is performed by those who know potential recipients, or the recipients themselves. Wollscheager was nominated by his parents, Joia by his, while Ringuette nominated herself to ALC’s board.

“For these young adults, it’s often hard for them to put themselves out there, and ask for what they need, and sometimes even to feel like they're worthy of it. So we wanted to make that process one where if someone could help lift them up,” said Moen.

After submission of their application to the board and then selection for the next step forward, candidates have the option of meeting committee members in-person or virtually, whether by phone call or email. The latter form of communication is one that the committee understands as an important option for their candidates.

“We recognize that for many people who are neurodiverse, in-person is really intimidating, tough, and uncomfortable,” said Moen.

The board then inquires as to what the goals of candidates are, what makes it difficult for them in regards to studying or their current place of employment, and what kind of assistance they need in working to realize their goal. In the case of this year’s recipients, that assistance came in the form of financial assistance, technological tools, and other resources in achieving their goals. ALC holds fundraising events in order to raise funds for that assistance, with between $4,000 to $5,000 in total each year that is awarded in the form of resources.

For the recipients themselves, being given an accolade such as the Dilger Award is a deeply meaningful achievement, as it certainly was for Ringuette, according to Moen.

“Nicole told me at the award [ceremony], she said, ‘I couldn’t believe it. I was on Facebook, I saw the award, and thought, finally there’s an award that I might be able to get.’ And I just thought, ‘Isn’t that great?’”

Moen remembers a past recipient who saw the award and its assistance as a life-changing event. The donee was an autistic 26-year old woman with a degree in film studies who had yet to be able to drive an automobile. With the inability to drive impacting her independence, she was purchased by ALC adaptive driving lessons tailored to individuals on the autism spectrum. After a year of lessons, she was able to garner her license, and then her own car and apartment, and ultimately her independence, all of which is in the spirit of ALC’s core mission.

Moen says that community members are able to participate in raising money for the annual award, starting with an email and an Facebook campaign.