Recreation programs foster inclusion

It’s all about playing together. That’s the philosophy of special recreation inclusion efforts integrating those with special needs into mainstream park programs.

Laney Myers, right, works to get control of the ball during practice. Mark Black, Daily Herald

By Janice A. Youngwith, Daily Herald November 2, 2011

That’s good news for kids like Laney and Leah Myers, 6-year-old twin soccer players from Naperville, Illinois and Jimmy Bonta, a budding 6-year-old arts and crafts enthusiast who delights in sharing time with neighborhood peers in Roselle Park District’s after-school care program.

But for Tammy Kerrins, Western DuPage Special Recreation Association manager of inclusion and certified therapeutic recreation specialist, the real miracle involves seeing participants learning to understand, respect and appreciate those with physical or intellectual differences. This year alone, Kerrins helped the Myers twins, the Bonta family and facilitated 1,800 placements of disabled adults and children in local park district offerings — a huge triple increase from just 10 years ago when 500 placements were made for those with special needs.

“From energetic preschoolers to ‘tweens, teens, adults and seniors, some pretty spectacular things are happening,” says Kerrins. “Illinois is among the state leaders when it comes to special recreation associations, and is a real leader in recreational inclusion efforts. Seeing those with challenges participate and interact with peers in a positive social environment is a win-win situation for everyone involved.”

Kerrins points to improvements in psychosocial health and well-being, self-esteem, cognitive functioning and acceptance as positive inclusion outcomes.

Six-year-old twins Leah, center left and Laney Myers, center right, enjoy playing on a Naperville soccer team with the help of inclusion aide Alyssa Andreade. Mark Black, Daily Herald

With 28 special recreation associations in Illinois providing programming services to nearly 188 communities and thousands of individuals with special needs, Illinois is considered a leader in social recreation inclusion efforts. Many states are taking a close look at the variety of opportunities and growing scope of opportunities to integrate those of all ages and abilities in community recreation across the state.

“Recreational inclusion is a natural carry-over derived from the trend in school districts,” explains Kerrins, who says everyone from toddlers to seniors enjoy recreational opportunities which level the proverbial playing field. “By providing the appropriate support and resources, we’re seeing disabled adults successfully included in local aerobic dance classes, legally blind seniors enjoying park district-sponsored outings with longtime friends and neighbors, and children of all ages joining community sports teams or taking gymnastics and art classes. Even tiny preschoolers, some just learning to walk, are learning to play together and have fun with others of all abilities.”

According to Kerrins, many of the WDSRA inclusion aides are special education teachers, therapists, physical education professionals, audiologists, counselors or students working their way through college programs.

“Today’s economy means we’re able to select from a wide pool of specialists,” says Kerrins, who adds that warm weather programs often are staffed by teaching professionals during their own summer recess.

Jimmy Bonta, 6, gets a hug from his sister Brooke, 8, while participating in the Club Kids program. Paul Michna, Daily Herald

For Jimmy Bonta, who is autistic and uses a hand-held augmentive communication device to speak, inclusion means playing alongside his sister, Brooke, 8, and her Spring Hills Elementary School peers in Roselle Park District’s after-school Club Kids three days each week.

“Inclusion provides Jimmy with positive role models and multiple benefits,” says Pam Bonta, Jimmy’s mom, who notes that her son attends the Chicago Education Project’s therapeutic day school in Schaumburg where he receives clinical and school-based services for children with autism spectrum disorders and related disabilities. “When I returned to work last year, I worried about Jimmy’s safety and finding an engaging after school inclusion program to best meet his needs.”

Bonta was delighted to learn of the Western DuPage Special Recreation Association’s ability to assist her in finding a specially trained, high-energy inclusion aide for her son to help with special communication needs, redirect attention and close the social gap by helping Jimmy participate in group games and some of his favorite art and craft projects.

“Every parent has high hopes that their children will be accepted and will fit in with their peers,” says Bonta, who recalls the warm welcome she and her son received on their first day at Club Kids.

“WDSRA helped me prepare the children for his arrival developing a plan to educate the children about autism. This plan included describing his Picture Exchange Communication (PECS) book, and sharing an “All About Me” board with pictures of Jimmy swimming, going to Disney, carving pumpkins and all sorts of normal daily activities. Together, we prepared a letter from Jimmy to his new Club Kids friends describing his desire and wish to be a friend and play. The result is a dream come true.”

Deana Myers, whose daughters Leah and Laney are diagnosed with cerebral palsy, couldn’t agree more when it comes to her children’s desire to play alongside peers.

Six-year-old twins Leah and Laney Myers of Naperville sit with their inclusion aide Alyssa Andreade. Having the aide helps the girls participate in a mainstream park district soccer program. Mark Black, Daily Herald

“Inclusion is a philosophy and now a process both in the educational and recreational settings,” explains Myers, a former pharmacist and stay-at-home mom who homeschools all four of her children. “Laney and Leah were still young when big sister, Emma’s park district dance teacher asked if they would be coming to class in the future. With Laney’s mobility issues and Leah’s speech and vision challenges, I didn’t know how that would be possible.”

Born after only 29 weeks gestation, the girls both faced numerous health challenges and developed a symbiotic relationship as youngsters, helping to compensate for some of each other’s challenges.

“They always have each other,” explains Myers, “but as the girls grew, their challenges changed. I worried Leah would get lost in a group setting due to her initial lack of speech, and despite therapy and surgery, Laney’s mobility challenges remained a major hurdle.”

Thanks to WDSRA support, she reports, both girls now are able to play alongside typically developing peers in their Naperville Park District soccer league and occasional Warrenville Park District dance classes.

“Laney’s soccer aide helps her get to places she needs to be on the field quicker and without stumbling,” reports her mom, who says Laney wears special ankle-foot orthotics and recently had very specialized surgery to sever nerves in her spinal column to loosen arm and leg tightness. “Leah has blossomed and gained confidence, though she still has an occasional problem finding the right words.”

Having a WDSRA aide allows the girls to participate, grow and learn alongside normally developing teammates, she says.

Source Daily Herald

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