Nicole Thibodeau of North Yarmouth knows how important help and support are in raising a special-needs child.

Her 13-year-old son Michael has Down syndrome, and doesn’t have a lot of opportunities to socialize with or play with peers. Thibodeau figured that if she was lamenting the lack of social interaction and recreational opportunities for her son, there probably were other parents of special-needs children doing the same thing.

So she and other like-minded moms decided to create a very special Saturday morning recreation program in Cumberland called “Root for ME!”

The open-gym session allows kids with special needs and their families to participate in activities at their own speed and within their own comfort zone. It’s also a chance for families in similar situations to socialize, and kids without special needs are welcome too.

“I met other mothers (of special-needs children) and we all started to realize we needed something for the kids to do, something they could take part in and feel good about,” said Thibodeau, 33. “We’re getting donations, volunteers and kids who just come to play. The support from the community has been great.”

The program has been running at the Mabel I. Wilson School in Cumberland since early fall, overseen by the Cumberland/North Yarmouth recreation department. About 20 to 30 people show up each week.


Thibodeau and two other North Yarmouth moms, Jodie Hall and Sarah McIntyre, are there every Saturday as organizers. They also work to spread the word about the unusual program (there’s a “Root for ME” Facebook page) and they look for donations of mats, tunnels, balls and other recreation equipment. They also have a resource table as a place to share information about various services.

Thibodeau is a single parent who also has a 9-year-old son, and is currently studying social and behavioral science at the University of Southern Maine. She hopes to eventually get a job working with families dealing with medical challenges.

She feels gratified that the “Root for ME!” program has taken off, and that so many people and families have come together to help each other. She’s hoping that more people with special-needs children will get involved.

“We definitely want to get the word out and let more people know about this,” she said.

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