"I always had my phone attached to me," recalls Dawn Martini of Wheaton. "I anticipated those dreaded calls about problems. They were always so negative. But now I have peace of mind. I can walk away from my phone and know it will be alright."
What changed? Dawn discovered inclusion services for her son Joey, 8 years old, living with general anxiety. Because of his anxiety, Joey doesn't handle transitions well and he is challenged by corrections or redirection from adults. When his anxiety builds up he finds it difficult to find the right words to express himself and that can lead to behavioral issues.
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Playing on a park district basketball team brought out Joey's anxiety. Lucky for them, an understanding coach worked with both Dawn and Joey to help them get through the season. He also introduced Dawn to inclusion services.
Inclusion services, offered through Special Recreation Associations (SRAs), are designed so that individuals with special needs can choose to participate in any regular park district program. SRAs work with the family to develop a plan that meets the goals for the child. They then coordinate with park district staff to make sure the child receives the necessary support. Inclusion services can range from training park district staff to making activity accommodations to providing a trained inclusion staff to assist the child on a regular basis. This is all provided at no cost to the family.
Inclusion is about giving families a choice. It allows families to choose to have their child enjoy programs side-by-side with typical developing peers while performing at their highest level of ability. Thanks to inclusion services, Sam Baebler, 14 of Wheaton, has been enjoying summer camp with his peers since he was 7 years old. "Sam counts down the days until camp starts," says his mom, Terri.
Terri chose inclusion with very specific goals in mind. Sam, who has Down syndrome, had some speech difficulty. Terri felt that being around typical kids his age would help encourage better speech development. Being an only child, she also wanted Sam to emulate the age-appropriate behavior demonstrated by his peers.
With the help of an inclusion staff, Sam is successfully meeting those goals. The inclusion staff helps facilitate conversations and play between Sam and his peers. He helps Sam engage with other kids so he is not sitting by himself. He is able to help guide Sam in emulating the positive behavior he learns from being around his peers.
Inclusion staff does all this while creating a positive, enjoyable and typical camp experience.
"I worried that Sam might come to depend on the staff to help him play. But now he talks more to the kids than his inclusion staff. We will keep using inclusion services until Sam ages out of the camp," says Terri.
Paul LoPresti of Itasca, had similar goals for his 8-year-old daughter, Sara. Sara lives with ataxia, a disease that causes nervous system damage and movement problems. Because the ataxia causes both cognitive and physical difficulties, attending a typical camp on her own would be impossible for Sara.
"We want Sara to be exposed to her typical developing peers so she can begin to imitate their behavior," says Paul. "But Sara is easily influenced by her environment. We were concerned about which behaviors she would choose to imitate." They chose inclusion services so that Sara would have someone there to help her make the right decisions.
While Sara was having a great time at camp, Paul had the satisfaction of knowing that she was with peers and had someone who was helping with her physical needs and able to tailor camp activities to meet her abilities. "It is a 100 percent good experience," shares Paul. "The staff is very good with Sara, everyone is very accommodating and there is great communication all the way around."
Paul is also happy that with the extra help, Sara is able to make friends and build typical relationships. "We always hope as parents that one day she will be able to be on her own. But we don't really know." Until then, there is inclusion for Sara.
"There are times you feel like you are the only one going through it," says Paul. "But then you learn that it's far from it." Paul's advice to parents new to inclusion is to learn more, explain your child's situation to the SRA staff, and then decide what is best for both you and your child.
So how do you find out what inclusion services are available in your area? There are two ways to learn more. Most park districts in Illinois offer inclusion through a partnership with their local Special Recreation Association. Ask them about the services available. Or visit specialrecreation.org for more information and to find the SRA supporting your community.
As for Joey, he found an inclusion staff that he clicked with and looks forward to camp now. Rather than having to be coaxed through the doors, he runs in. When his anxiety flares up, there is someone there to help him work through it. "Joey has someone who can lead by example. He gets positive reinforcement and someone to help him learn to use the tools he is going to need for life," says Dawn. "I can breathe now."
• 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about WDSRA can be found at wdsra.com.