By the second week of last June, I looked like a deer in the headlights, frozen and staring down a long summer. Knee-deep in moving boxes and with two squirrelly and uneasy children, I needed a consistent, safe, and fun place for them to go. Then I could unpack, which would help us find our reassuring routine after a stressful school year. Thankfully, the summer-long parks drop-in program began that week. But I didn’t feel confident that my 7-year-old, who’s on the autism spectrum and was struggling with anxiety and reactivity, could engage with peers well without support.
As with prior summers, I had done my best to check in with “where we’re at” in terms of challenges and interests. I gave the kids choices of activities and gauged what my other commitments were. I reflected on my son’s emotional regulation, ability to problem-solve, and communicate. Figuring out “where we’re at” helped me decide whether to ask Reach for Resources (REACH) for help. It’s been different each year.
For example, when my son was four, I had a REACH staff person at some camps to help remind him of bathroom breaks, help him through transitions, and, literally, pick him up off the ground when he flopped with discouragement. He’d done fine without REACH support at the more structured drop-in programs. With those program staff, many of them high school and college students, a handout describing my little guy, giving pointers, and inviting questions and conversation was sufficient to support his successful inclusion.
At five, we did the nature program without support because my son was comfortable with the staff, the setting, and a friend or two who had also registered. I had also come to trust the staff’s calm confidence about and awareness of his differences. In his sixth summer, he went unsupported to most activities.
This year, it was clear I’d misjudged “where we’re at.” This year, “where we’re at” included: a new school, a new home, and lots of difficulty managing emotions (this was true for the whole family!). Somewhere in that whirlwind, I had forgotten to fill out the forms to get REACH involved. I didn’t feel comfortable dropping my son off unsupported.
When I finally I snapped out of my deer-in-the-headlights state and scrambled to fill out the REACH online forms, they quickly assembled a support team for us. I felt guilty asking for a staff member at each of his activities, but decided that this was an exceptional time for us. I would ask for help and trust that Reach’s coordinator, Emily, would let me know if I was asking too much.
As the summer went on, I could tell my son seemed comforted by the consistent presence of a REACH staff member at the parks program and at the nature camps. I was thankful that the staff struck a balance between engaging with him one-on-one and stepping back to encourage and facilitate his participation in the group. I was also pleased to find that Reach was supporting several other kids at each program. It was reassuring to know we were part of a little community of families needing space, structure, and inclusivity. Finally, at the end of our last camp, a nature center staff member told me she appreciated when parents sign their kids up for REACH. She said it helped the program run smoothly for all kids while flexibly engaging the extra-squirrelly, sometimes sensitive kids like mine.
It took us the whole summer to get back on our feet after our stressed-out, anxious spring. I’m so grateful that we asked for help—it gave me peace of mind to see both of my kids thriving in community programs that could meet their unique needs.
REACH sees inclusion as more than the mere presence of people with disabilities or other special needs in parks and recreation programming; it is the full and active participation of all individuals together. REACH staff members work together with city coaches and instructors to blend in, providing the minimum support needed at any given time and encourage independence and skill building in all of the participants in the program. Inclusion staff members support children and adults in all types of programs such as dance, t-ball, summer camps, art classes, yoga, paddle boarding, chemistry club, swimming lessons, and more. Inclusion facilitators focus on attention span, sensory integration, communication, physical adaptations, and behavior management. They assist with social interactions, repeat and/or model instructions, verbally redirect a participant when distracted, assist a person with meeting their sensory needs, and generally assist to create an experience that will allow for a positive and successful experience for all. Each person is unique and the support they receive looks different, it is individualized based on the participant’s goals and desires.
Looking for assistance? REACH provides inclusion support in in Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, Chanhassen, Chaska, Crystal, New Hope, Golden Valley, and Saint Louis Park. If you sign up for parks and recreation programs in one of these communities please indicate the accommodations needed upon registration. You may then contact our Director of Adaptive and Recreation & Inclusion, Emily Miller, to set up services. Emily will explain the process and ask you to complete some paperwork before matching a staff to you or your child. Emily can be reached at 952-393-5880 or [email protected].