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updated: 1/24/2013 2:51 PM

Participation can be life-changing, for any of us

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By Sherry Manschot

Whether you have toddlers, school-age children, or teens, you know there is a lot of pent-up energy during the winter months. How do you channel that energy? Where do you go that will satisfy both their desire to have fun and your need for them to be in a safe, supportive environment? And while we are thinking about it, let's also make it convenient so that you could even get some time to yourself.

"Winter is really a tough time of year because Grant has a lot of energy," says Joan Camper whose son, Grant, 20, has autism. "Grant needs to burn off energy on a regular basis so that he can get through the rest of his day, sit longer when he needs to and not get frustrated or bored."

Sound impossible? Not with the network of Special Recreation Associations throughout Illinois. SRAs provide local and regional leisure programs for children, teens, and adults with special needs.

Camper looks to her local SRA to provide an outlet for her son's energy. While Grant looks forward to swim team, basketball and snowshoeing, Camper looks forward to him keeping active and fit.

"Grant loves to be a part of his SRA teams. He loves playing sports, like his brothers, and the friends he has made on the team," she said. "I like that fact that the activity will help keep him healthy, calm and reduce his impulsivity when we are out in public. He needs the regularity that these SRAs provide. And I know that he is in a good place with good people who understand his needs."

SRAs strive to create the best environment possible for people with special needs. They offer opportunities for individuals to perform at their highest level of ability. They recognize the need for flexibility to accommodate each participant based on their ability, level of function, age and interest.

Families can choose from programs including sports and Special Olympics, arts and music, social clubs and camps, trips and special events and more. Special recreation is focused on community-based programming. That means that programs are held in community outlets such as schools and park district facilities.

In addition, inclusion services are available at no cost if the family chooses to participate in an existing park district program. Accommodations may include adaptive materials, activity modification, observation and evaluation, or the provision of support staff.

"Samantha started out in both inclusion and Special Olympics programs through our local SRA," says Liz Rein, whose daughter Samantha, 22, has Down syndrome. "Through inclusion I wanted her to have the experience of being around typical kids her age in a typical environment to develop her socialization skills. But I also wanted her to be able to be in an environment where she could relax and be herself, so she participated in Special Olympics at the same time," Rein said. "It was the best of both worlds providing great social experiences."

At 22, Samantha has quite the social life. She has participated in camps, dance and art programs, theater, bowling, just to name a few. "If not for the SRA programs, Samantha would never have had those social experiences and would have been isolated," Rein says. "Instead, her life is full of invitations, involvement and experiences she looks forward too."

SRAs typically offer high staff-to-participant ratios, provide trained staff, activity modification and often offer transportation. Because of the wide range of ages they serve, SRAs can provide programs for the very youngest of children all the way through the most mature adult.

The advantages of participation for a person with special needs can be life-changing. Through fun and recreation we all learn and practice the skills needed throughout a lifetime, establish friendships and gain social independence. For an individual with a disability, those are just some of the crucial components to growth and development. They also can improve self-confidence, gain independence, reinforce existing skills, learn new skills and increase self-esteem. They also can learn and practice navigating social situations, establishing peer relationships and building friendships -- all under the guise of fun leisure activities.

For parents and caretakers, regular participation also can provide some much-desired respite. Knowing that your child is in good hands, safe, making friends and having fun can provide a sense of relief and satisfaction. It can make a tremendous difference in your life, too.

There are 29 special recreation cooperatives in Illinois serving 190 communities. SRAs serve individuals with all disabilities including but not limited to: ADD/ADHD, autism, behavioral difficulties, cognitive impairments, developmental delays, Down syndrome, learning impairments, mental illness, multiple impairments and physical and visual impairments.

While SRAs have become a fundamental option for families looking for a place for their young and adult children to call home, programming does vary by SRA. The universal purpose, though, is to offer participants a safe, supportive environment in which they can explore leisure activities year-round.

You can find the Special Recreation Association that serves your community by visiting or contact Western DuPage Special Recreation Association (WDSRA) for assistance at (630) 681-0962. You can also contact your local park district or recreation department and ask them if they are a member of a Special Recreation Association or offer programs for individuals with disabilities.

Join the conversation at our blog at Parents are encouraged to speak directly to other parents, share thoughts, offer personal stories, and educate each other on topics that affect them in their everyday life.

• Sherry Manschot is the marketing/public relations manager at Western DuPage Special Recreation Association. She leads a parent network of special needs families at WDSRA. Manschot can be contacted at More information about WDSRA can be found at

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