Hajnalka (Hanna) Gabris is a consistent source of connection, compassion, and resourcefulness to Kingsbridge Heights Community Center’s (KHCC) special needs community. A mentor and coach to her colleagues, teacher, counselor, and friend to youth, and advocate for their families, each day Hanna enables kids with disabilities to have the same opportunities as their mainstream peers.
A native of Hungary, Hanna’s interest in pursuing an educational focus on children with developmental disabilities brought her to the U.S. where she completed master’s degrees in general and special education and a graduate certificate in applied behavioral analysis. Hanna has 13 years of experience as an educator for special needs youth. Her formative experiences were spent working 1:1 with young people who evidenced considerable communication and interpersonal skill deficits and supporting self-contained classrooms for students with autism. In 2008, Hanna was invited to observe KHCC’s afterschool Respite program. She was struck by the mundane aspects of the program routine and how the special needs activity areas were separated from the mainstream KHCC youth. Despite having just launched a career in the
Westchester County school system, Hanna was drawn to the transformative possibilities of KHCC’s program for kids with disabilities and soon accepted an offer to oversee the agency’s Respite programs.
Over the past 10 years, Hanna has grown KHCC’s special needs programming from basic childcare support, to a vital and vibrant program providing wraparound support for kids with autism, down syndrome, and other developmental disabilities. After assessing all aspects of the program, bringing in new staff, and motivating long-time staff with her passionate and invested perspective, Hanna has transformed the afterschool hours for young people with special needs to be just as enriching as it is for their typically developing peers. Even more, Hanna has instituted her vision for inclusion that far exceeds the typical notion of acceptance, helping to mainstream the Respite youth. She has launched programs that offer typically developing teens an opportunity to learn mentorship, leadership, and patience with peers who have different abilities, and with grant and consultant support, Hanna launched “Helping Hands”, a recreational hour in gym which connects middle school students and Respite participants. Thanks to Hanna’s continued pursuit of mainstreaming opportunities, KHCC launched a Best Buddies, Inc. chapter in 2014, helping to foster friendships between teens with autism and down syndrome and their non-disabled peers.
The growth of KHCC mainstreaming initiatives has had a profound impact on both special needs and typically-developing youth alike. Hanna has worked hard to deconstruct misconceptions about youth with special needs, reminding the organization and community as a whole that special needs students have all the same dreams as their typically developing peers.