Adults with disabilities need a space to socialize, too.

And that’s exactly what the 100% volunteer-run Club Impact provides.

Club Impact participants meet new friends and hang out in a safe space for adults with disabilities to practice social skills.Club Impact celebrated their 7th anniversary on Monday night, February 20th. 40 adults with disabilities, along their care providers and volunteers, commemorated the anniversary with a special addition to their annual meeting. Ralph Gilliam, the founder of Club Impact, asked participants to share their favorite memories and experiences with the rest of the group.

As soon as Ralph announced it was sharing time, the crowd lined up. Most of them looked a little nervous to be talking in front of the group. Some were excited. “Goooood evening!”, a participant hammed it up for the crowd like a radio announcer. When pushed to say his favorite part of Club Impact he ad-libbed, “Movie nights are just the ticket!”

Movie nights made the list of favorites for many of the participants. The annual Spaghetti Factory Holiday Dinner, a Summer Blast event at Ralph’s house, and playing Uno with friends got smiles from the crowd. One participant felt most connected when he played music for the group, and was proud of his role as DJ.

One of the participants froze when the microphone was placed in her hand. “You can do it, Holly!” someone spoke out. Soon all around the room, people were chiming in their encouragement. “You can do it!” Slowly Holly told her story. “A scary thing happened to me,” she said. A stroke had put her in the hospital in the last year. That week Ralph lined up an Impact NW van and brought the club to her in the hospital, along with some cards they had all signed. She cherished that visit, and it had a deep impact on others as well. “My favorite thing at club was when we went to visit Holly at the hospital,” Nik, another participant, said.

Almost all of the participants’ stories circled back to Ralph. With a background in special education, Ralph Gilliam realized many people with disabilities were aging out of their support structures and needed a way to connect to each other. “Actually coming and meeting people face to face, for a lot of these guys, can be really challenging,” he says. “They really need to have a social outlet, and they really need a safe space to experiment with behavior.” In response to this need, he founded Club Impact in 2010. Now, Club Impact hosts weekly meetings where adults with disabilities can socialize and develop community. It’s always been a grassroots organization, funded almost entirely by minimal dues and supported by just a few regular donors.

In addition to benefiting the participants, the club is also a valuable networking opportunity for their care providers. While the participants are meeting each other, the providers are also finding community. “I really had no idea what an important dimension to the club that was going to be,” Ralph reflected. The club is also a place for volunteers, often college students, to solidify their skills in working with adults with disabilities and educate them in how to build pro-social behavior.

A few of the participants expressed how much they would miss Ralph, who is preparing for a minor surgery. He’ll be back in no time, but it reflects a broader need – can this club exist without Ralph? “I’m not done, but I’m almost 72 years old and I want the club to keep going after I’m done, and it seems like everybody else does too,” Ralph says. But finding someone to take over this labor of love is challenging. Finding funding for it, even more so.

Club Impact has reached hundreds of people over the years. Through it, adults with disabilities are finding connections and friendships. “They’re so sweet and generous with their affection,” Ralph says. “This club is like a family to them (and us)… They really care a lot about each other. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Story by Sagan Wallace