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By day, Donna Harper works with special needs clients; in her free time, she’s dedicated to providing a safe, creative outlet to kids whose voices might not otherwise be heard. Photo by Matthew DaCorte/The Courier

By day, Donna Harper works with special needs clients; in her free time, she’s dedicated to providing a safe, creative outlet to kids whose voices might not otherwise be heard. (Photo by Matthew DaCorte/The Courier | Buy This Photo)

Donna Harper: Helping Others Find their Voice

Published Sep. 13, 2017

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There’s a link between Donna Harper’s work helping those with intellectual and mental disabilities in North Haven, and her involvement with Ignite the Voice, a non-profit organization that focuses on helping youth in New Haven and surrounding cities through the arts.

“In both aspects, I’m giving back in some type of way,” she says.

Donna works as direct support staff for Behavioral Management, LLC, an organization that provides services for individuals with special needs. She says it’s a challenging field, and it’s not for someone who’s not patient.

It was a field that Donna fell into. She’d been working in store management for more than 10 years when she applied for a job at Marrakech, an organization providing programs for those with disabilities, not realizing what the organization was about or what it did.

Having worked with some people with mental and intellectual issues previously, she thought she could handle it. In her first year, she worked in a group home with six individuals who had a form of mental illness or intellectual disability.

“It was challenging. Not going to lie, I contemplated quitting about 10 times, but as I continued, I saw that I had an aptitude for it because of my compassion, because of me being patient,” Donna says.

At that point, Donna thought that it was the field she wanted to be in. Her supervisor at the time said she was natural at the job, and said she could tell Donna was doing it because she actually liked it.

She was (and still is) going back to school to be a nurse, and decided she wanted to be a mental health nurse because of her experience in that field.

Although it can be challenging, Donna says she loves her current job of about two years.

“It’s challenging, but I really, honestly, truly enjoy my job,” Donna says.

While assisting those with disabilities is a relatively new passion for Donna, her work with Ignite the Voice is inspired by own experience.

As a child, she was part of a group called City Kids, which went to schools and recruited people like Donna. She said people would have to audition for the group, whether it was a song, dance, monologue, or something of that nature.

Not only was the organization a way for her and others to express themselves through the arts, the organization also met to sit down and talk in a “safe space,” as Donna called it, and were able to express themselves with things the members were dealing with growing up.

“I think all of us had some type of something that we were dealing with as a teenager where we really needed it, and we all saw how City Kids helped us in some type of way, and we just wanted to kind of reintroduce that to New Haven,” Donna says.

Donna says that New Haven has given her and has taught her a lot, and that her work with the organization is way to give back to the city.

On Aug. 27, Ignite the Voice held a car-wash in which about seven kids participated to help raise funds for the organization. Donna says the kids did an amazing job during the fundraiser.

Next up, Ignite the Voice will stage a talent show and open mic on Friday, Oct. 6 at Lyric Hall in New Haven. There will be prizes for the youth talent (aged 13 to 19) who can perform whatever they chose to perform, and adults will be able to participate in the open mic portion.

“I’m totally rocking a monologue at the open mic,” Donna says enthusiastically and with a laugh.

Donna equates what she’s doing with Ignite the Voice to her work in the mental health field, saying that her goal with both is similar, which is to help give back and show support.

“This is my way of being able to give back to people who can’t express [themselves] in certain ways, how have a hard time saying ‘I’m hurting, I’m upset, I don’t understand this, I don’t get this, I need help with this,’” Donna says, “It’s my way of saying OK, let me assist you, let me help you.”

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