Golden Gate Park

Children With Disabilities Enjoy Therapeutic Recreation Day in GG Park

By Kate Quach

With a Saturday morning mist pattering down on the leafy foliage of Golden Gate Park’s Botanical Garden, Marcela Guerrero and her 10-year-old son Matteo strolled hand-in-hand to the tucked-away Celebration Garden. Huddled in his coat, Matteo brims with a smile as he recognizes familiar faces from the Therapeutic Recreation Inclusion Services Team – friends whom he has not seen since summer camp. For Matteo and his mom, this is their first family recreation day for children with disabilities.

Matteo and his mom Marcela introduce themselves to new families and counselors while at the recreational day. Photos by Kate Quoch.

When Guerrero found out about the family day, she and her son made an effort to step outside of their house, despite the sprinkling weather.

“It was a great opportunity for us to come and meet new families and other kids with special needs,” Guerrero said. “We don’t get to see [the community] very often, only once in a while.”

The get-together event, hosted by San Francisco Recreation and Park Department’s Therapeutic Recreation Inclusion Services Team, offered a chance for children with disabilities to reconnect with one another as they chased after bubbles floating through the crisp air and spun hula hoops under draping branches of willow trees.

Hula-hoops were popular during free time with physical therapy exercises.

Recreation and program specialist Jessica Huey has been working with children since 2015. During her seven years as a coordinator, she has watched youth like Matteo grow up into young adults proudly holding their college acceptance letter and entering the workforce. As Huey welcomed families to the gathering, she thought back to the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when large group activities were limited.

“A lot of our families were on their own little islands because of the shutdown. They were cut off from resources unfortunately, and weren’t able to socialize,” Huey said. “This event is really for our families to connect and for us to let them know what new programs we have and build the support system.”

Zoe (left) and her mom Christina enjoy fresh air and a cool breeze at GG Park’s Botanical Garden.

Huey organized the first standalone social event, alongside colleagues Lucas Tobin and Jennifer Wong, to accommodate 10 families with accessible and immersive experiences of entertainment for their children. Together, they encouraged the children to engage in physical therapy free time using hula-hoops and tagging games.

“We can work on our fine motor skills or gross motor skills. It’s creating spatial awareness,” she said.

David Tracy and his son Calvin recognized the Therapeutic Recreation Inclusion Services staff from previous summer camps. For the father-son pair’s first therapeutic community day at the Botanical Garden, they made sure to get back in touch with friends and camp mentors.

“It’s sort of like a little bit of a reunion,” Tracy said. “I just think it’s really important to connect, for families to know that they’re not alone and to celebrate our differences and have fun.”

Calvin, who is 11 years old and autistic, possesses primary interests in San Francisco’s public transportation system, such as the Muni and BART transit lines. He eagerly greeted his counselors, who had supported him throughout the summer with field trips around the City involving his fascination for city transit.

“He has been missing seeing everyone, so he was very excited to come here today,” Tracy shared.

Christina and her 12-year-old daughter Zoe layered up before participating in the dynamic activities planned for the morning. Although they attended previous therapeutic recreational events, they maintained their commitment to stay active against the chilly forecast and bundled up for their first such gathering as a family.

“We’ve been staying home too much. We need to go outside, and it always feels good,” Christina said. “Even though it’s rainy today, it feels really good to be outside.”

Huey, looking out into the diverse group of families in the Garden, noted the “good turnout for wet weather.”

While more therapeutic family recreation days continue to be planned by her team, Huey emphasized her intentions to collaborate with additional services and agencies to “become an even bigger support system” for San Franciscan children with disabilities and their families.

“Park and Recreation offers so many great programs, whether it’s for people with disabilities or not, we are really working toward having a more inclusive and diverse community,” Huey said. “The more we can do, the better. It’ll be a slow roll. But we have to start somewhere and we’re looking to cast a wider net to help more individuals.”

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