By Tom Holmes
Ginanna Rubino will be a junior at the University of Iowa and is completing her second summer as a seasonal staff member with the West Suburban Special Recreation Association (WSSRA). Her job is to help teenagers and young adults with disabilities have fun. Some patrons of the Forest Park Aquatic Center may see Rubino with her WSSRA group regularly every summer for six weeks in June and July.
The participants—as WSSRA refers to the people she works with—have diagnoses like autism, cerebral palsy, Asberger Syndrome, Downs Syndrome, ADHD, hyperactivity and learning disabilities.
"When I first started college," said Rubino, "I was trying to find a major that would make the most money, but now, after working at WSSRA, it's so different."
Rubino referred to a participant we'll call Sarah to explain why she is now studying therapeutic recreation—basically the same kind of work she does in her summer job.
"Sarah is in a wheel chair, and she can't use her hands or talk, but when she comes to the pool, she has the biggest smile and laughs alot. It's just so amazing to be able to do the work I do for someone like that."
Nicole Walsh, the public relations coordinator for WSSRA, said that her organization serves about 165 participants in their summer camp program. They are divided into smaller groups with fifteen participants and eight staff in each "camp." Besides going to the pool, activities include field trips, sports, crafts, camp games, music, art, talent shows, pot lucks, sensory games, and "plenty of things out in the community."
Even though the summer staff is there to help the participants have a good time, there are challenges. Suzzane Navarrete, who just completed her fourth summer with WSSRA, explained what it is like to work with people who are nonverbal, who can't tell you what's wrong or what they want.
"You have to pay really close attention to their facial expressions," Navarrete said. "A lot of it is trial and error."
Kelsey Ryan, a senior at the University of Illinois who is a special education major, said that each participant is different. One participant she works with, for example, has autism and likes to be on a strict schedule.
"When he's off schedule," Ryan said, "he'll flip out, so I have to find a way to help him, because we're not going to do the same things every day. I do get frustrated with participants, but then I understand that they can't help it."
"Sometimes camp is controlled chaos," said Jack Devit, a junior special education major at Butler University. "There have been times when it's been a pure meltdown, and we have kids who feed off of chaos. If they see you getting frustrated they're like 'Oh yeah, I'm getting exactly what I want out of this guy,' so you just gotta be cool. You can't take things too personally. None of it is personal."
Shannon Kenny completed her sixth summer with WSSRA in July. She acknowledged that they get a lot of strange looks when they're out in public with the participants.
"One time," she said, "I was at the zoo with a thirteen year old who thought we were going to the pool that day. He seemed to be saying 'this is not what I signed up for' and started screaming and throwing things. One parent was shooing her kids away, so I said 'you don't have to do that. He won't hurt anybody. He's just trying to work things out right now'."
Many of the summer staff members emphasized that even though they may work hard at times, they have a lot of fun with the participants. Devit admitted that five years ago when he started working at the summer camp, he was embarrassed by the participants not always behaving in ways that polite society deems acceptable, but over the years the participants have helped him loosen up.
"Instead of trying to control and make them behave like they 'should,'" he explained, "I just roll with them. I love coming to camp. You get to be kind of weird, and you get to do things with the kids. It's just so fun."
All of the nine seasonal staff interviewed talked about how the participants had a big impact on them.
"I've definitely learned to not take things for granted." Kelsey Ryan's sister, Katie, said, "When I came to work here, I expected the worst, but it really is not that difficult if you have patience, dedication and are willing to put in the hard work."
She focused on how satisfying seeing small changes in the participants can be. "It's really rewarding to see a participant smile. That really makes my day. Any improvement, no matter how small, it still feels amazing."
Jada Sidney is a Forest Park resident who will be a senior at Walther High School. She said of her first summer working at WSSRA.
"Even though the participants and I are different on some levels, we get some things from each other." Sidney said. "As I go on in life, I'm going to see people who are different, and I can understand them and talk to them. I love that about this work."
Gina Rubino doesn't like the label disabled.
"It doesn't seem right to call them disabled, because there's nothing wrong with them," Rubino said. "They're not disabled. It's just that they do things differently. They can do everything we can do, just in a different way."
Jack Devit acknowledged that the vast majority of seasonal staff working for WSSRA and in his special education classes at Butler are women.
"I might be one of three males in a class of thirty students so I'm used to it," he began and added, "this doesn't affect my masculine image at all. I'd like to see some of these macho guys get out here and do what we do."
He went on.
"When you're around coworkers who have the same mentality as you do, it doesn't matter if it's a guy or a girl. We are here with a common goal, and if you are good at what you do you get nothing but respect. Anyone who is questioning your masculinity and your profession probably has a little insecurity in themselves."