From volunteering as a high schooler to overseeing nonprofit SOAR365’s expansive day and respite services, Emily Lehmann has helped to serve individuals with disabilities and their families for over two decades.
“One of the best things about my role is how I’ve been able to see the organization grow and evolve,” says Lehmann. “Growing up, my parents lived three miles from the [SOAR] summer camp, and I decided to volunteer,” she says. “I really enjoyed working with adults and kids with disabilities and from there went on to work with children in an after-school program.”
Even while getting her undergrad degree and masters in education, Lehmann continued to work with the folks at SOAR. She stepped away for a few years to teach at both the middle and high school level, but Lehmann says it wasn’t long before she was ready to put her work where her heart had always been.
Formerly Greater Arc of Richmond, SOAR365 has grown over the past 65-plus years to include four service locations in addition to a free, inclusive, open-to-the public park that is accessible 365 days a year.
In her role overseeing programs at multiple sites, Lehmann works with people spanning all ages and abilities. “I find myself quite fortunate to be able to see these different environments,” she says.
The respite program (available at the SOAR Camp Baker location) allows individuals with disabilities and their families an opportunity to take time away from each other for a weekend, with activities including swimming, bowling, trips to restaurants and museums, exercising and more. The day program includes volunteering opportunities, learning about safety, cooking and money management and discovering creative outlets.
During the initial pandemic shutdown, Lehmann says she was “heartbroken,” but she and her team quickly rallied to figure out how to slowly and safely reopen their facilities. Today, Lehmann says they have been fortunate to rehire most of their staff.
She says that while the pandemic challenged the nonprofit, it also helped the organization’s different sites connect with each other. “We had been very siloed before, most staff at each location knew each other, but didn’t know people in the other programs."
Thanks to Zoom, team members at each facility could host a lesson for the week and stream it to everyone. “It was also a way to leverage staff skill sets and talents,” says Lehmann. “I might have someone who is an expert in cooking or mat, they can teach a lesson that everyone in all my programs can benefit from.”
As pleased as she is with these developments, it is what the future holds -specifically, this summer— that thrills Lehmann.
“We have not had a traditional summer camp since 2019,” she says. “This year we are planning a full 10-week, overnight camp. This is really exciting for the agency as a whole, but also particularly for me, because this is where it all started,” says Lehmann. “And for campers it’s their vacation away from home, their time to zone out and just be themselves.”