By Kate Quach
Huddling under the washed gray sky, families slowly formed a line at Glen Canyon Recreation Center. They waited with anticipation to enter a wood-paneled gymnasium filled with activities ranging from archery to rock climbing and floor parkour.
Underneath the surface of fun and exercise, the Therapeutic Recreation Family Day and similar events hosted by the Therapeutic Recreation Inclusion Services team showcase an even deeper collection of stories that display both the unique resilience and joys of life for families with children with disabilities.
“We look for activities that are tailored for Gabriel because he has neuro diversity and he’s also on the autism spectrum,” said Stephanie Stewart, a resident of the Richmond District, as she cheered on her son Gabriel while he engaged in the archery simulation. For Stewart and Gabriel, they turn to the Therapeutic Recreation Inclusion Services team to find “the events where he’s going to feel included.”
Oftentimes, Gabriel struggles with crowded, busy social settings. When first finding programs to enrich her 13-year-old son, Stewart detailed the lengthy efforts she took before enrolling Gabriel in activities that best suited his needs.
“We’ve tried different sorts of camps, and he gets lost in the mix,” Stewart said. “There are just too many faces and too many kids and not as many adults. He just needs that little bit of extra special attention.”
Stewart also expressed initial nervousness when introducing Gabriel to adaptive play camps.
“We were just wondering, ‘Would he would he be around kids that are like him or at the same levels as him?’”
Centering her enthusiasm on the archery activity during the Family Day, Stewart spotted Gabriel stepping up to the aiming line. With the individualized help of a Therapeutic Recreation Staff member, Gabriel released the string of the bow from his grasp. The arrow whistled through the air before pinning onto the bullseye of the velcro target rings. Gabriel burst into a smile of amazement, and Stewart beamed back, appreciating how one-on-one guidance during the activity made him “feel more confident and less anxious.”
Directing the many archery stalls at the event stood 11th grader Yazkira Reyes, who guided interested youth in floating balloon target practice. As an intern for the Therapeutic Recreation Inclusion Services for the past six months, Reyes found her experience as the oldest child in her family shining through to her work during the Family Day.
“I have siblings, so taking care of them makes me want to also help other children,” she said. “It feels like everyone’s a family.”
Matteo always found a family in Therapeutic Recreation’s camps and activities since he was very little. Now 10 years old, he springs past his mom, Marcela Guerrero, and rounds the corner to meet a spacious indoor rock-climbing course, coloring sheets and crosswords spread across tables, and a corner for a life-sized Connect 4 game. Guerrero, a business owner in the Richmond District, caught up to her son just as he gathered around the pillared rock walls.
“It is a great community and I love the opportunities that (Therapeutic Recreation Inclusion Services) is giving to a child with special needs.”
Guerrero describes her son, a child with Down Syndrome, as “very active, very intelligent and very determined at what he wants to do.” Guerrero supports Matteo’s sessions in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, which intends to “increase language and communication skills” and “improve attention, focus, social skills, memory and academics.” She also recognizes the challenges that new moms of children with disabilities face when finding helpful resources (dsla.org).
“You need to learn to navigate the system to find the research. The most important thing is to connect with parents,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to talk about your needs or your child’s needs. Talking about our special needs connects us to explore more resources.”
Steward seconded like-minded advice for recent parents of a child with disabilities.
“Connect to the different activities that are in the City,” she added. “Going on social media or finding a Facebook page that has parents who are doing the same thing or looking for support also helps.”
Jennifer Wong, therapeutic recreation coordinator for the Rec. and Park Therapeutic Rec. and Inclusion Services team, works alongside Jessica Huey, recreation specialist. The two program leaders agree with Guerrero and Stewart’s words of recommendation and extend a welcome for parents to reach out to them for future enrichment development.
“As certified therapeutic recreation specialists, we are constantly working on how we can help our participants grow and develop. I think if one person takes away one new recreation skill that’s helping them develop into great human beings, then I think we’re really doing our job,” reflects Wong. She emphasizes her goal of creating a “safe and supportive environment” for all children with disabilities that find comfort within the care of the therapeutic recreation team, like Gabriel has.
For Huey, networking with the families provides opportunities for new parents that Guerrero referred to, as “choices aren’t a lot for people with disabilities.” In her work, the program director hopes to establish meaningful relationships with the parents and children that involve themselves in her Family Day activities. “I like that human interaction and making it more personable. Connecting with one another, creating a larger support network, not just inside our staff, but really, with each family meeting each other,” said Huey.
“It’s what we do and what we care about.”
To learn more, go to sfrecpark.org/1249/Therapeutic-Recreation.
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