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The Best of Your Ability

The benefits of enrichment activities for children with disabilities.

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Years ago, Danny Rusak wanted to find an activity in which her daughter Amy could participate. This was easier said than done — Amy has cerebral palsy and Danny herself was anxious.

“It was scary because I wanted her involved, but didn’t know how or where,” says Rusak. Thankfully, she met some other moms at a local recreation center that had older children with developmental disabilities. Through suggestions from these moms, Rusak found Magic Moments, a theater community for people of all abilities. Amy has now been an enthusiastic part of Magic Moments for seven years, and it has changed her life.

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Magic Moments is just one of many extracurricular opportunities for special needs children in the metro area. Once you find a program that fits your desires and needs, you”ll see the many positive effects it can have in your life.

Increased Confidence

Participating in an activity will boost your child’s confidence, as well as your own. “I used to hover and try to do everything for her,” Rusak remembers. “Now she shoos me away, and wants to be on her own. She’s involved in something that is entirely hers and that has given her independence, confidence and joy. It’s given me inspiration and hope to see her be so independent.”

“(The goal) is to benefit the disabled community and involve them in every aspect of the theater,” says Ted Kuenz, a Magic Moments board member who has been a part of the theater’s community for 13 years. This means that there is something for everyone to do: stage production, lighting, music or acting. “They find a confidence that they didn’t even know they had,” Kuenz says.

An added aim of Magic Moments is to build relationships between those with developmental disabilities and those without. “(It feels) wonderful seeing how hard the human spirit will work to overcome obstacles in order to connect with one another,” Kuenz says.

Community and Friendship

Participating in an activity gives families the chance to be part of a new community of people. “I have had parents tell me that TOPSoccer is a great way to realize that you are not alone,” says Cristi Thomas, the Colorado program director for TOPSoccer, a program designed for players with cognitive, developmental and physical disabilities. “Many parents have fears about how their child will be treated, and then they see how everyone involved with TOPSoccer interacts with and cares for these kids, and they feel a sense of relief that there are kids out there that will look out for their child.”

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In TOPSoccer, players are paired with a buddy who is not developmentally disabled. The buddy stays with the player every step of the way, learns to anticipate their needs, accepts them for who they are and encourages the players to participate at their own pace. “Soccer bridged a gap of misunderstanding and fear by showing through playing a sport that we are more the same than different,” Thomas recalls one TOPSoccer parent saying.

Physical Growth

Increased coordination and concentration are also tremendous benefits. Physical activities support a child’s physical strength and growth. Heather Sutton, who teaches a Ballet Expressions class for children with developmental disabilities at the Colorado Conservatory of Dance, says that her students experience many of the same benefits that students in typical classes experience. “There is improved memory and coordination, increased attention and concentration,” she says.

Passionate Instructors

Thomas and Sutton are examples of the kind of passion and experience most instructors of programs for children with developmental disabilities bring to their jobs. As a competitive soccer coach and special education teacher who’s been teaching students with special needs for over 12 years, Thomas says that TOPSoccer brings both of her passions together.

Sutton, a registered dance therapist with degrees in special physical education and somatic counseling psychotherapy, keeps her Ballet Expressions classes smaller so that students can have more individual attention. She also makes a concerted effort to work with parents to find the most effective way to adapt classes for their children.

Sutton says working with parents is beneficial since they can often provide valuable insights, cues and tips about their children. She believes that finding an instructor with a basic knowledge of certain therapies is helpful so that the teacher can understand the developmental path the students are on. This allows the teacher to meet children where they are to ensure progress and success.

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Before You Enroll

“There are a number of things any parent would want to consider before trying a new experience or program for their child,” says Barb Komdat, director of community outreach for Developmental Pathways in Englewood. Keep the following general guidelines in mind when searching for a program.

Take time to meet with the providers/organization ahead of time, and stop by with your child if possible.

Inquire about any particular accessibility needs your family member might have. Find out exactly what kind of support is provided and what the level of supervision will be.

Talk to other parents. “Happy parents are often an indicator of a good program,” says Sutton. Moreover, happy parents are likely an indicator of happy students.

Don’t let your own anxiety keep your child from having experiences. “Although it is natural to be anxious about any unknown for your child,” says Komdat, “understand that there are many caring and skilled providers who can make a tremendous difference for your child and for you.”

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When you start exploring the many great places in the metro area for kids with disabilities, both you and your child can move toward greater confidence and independence.

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