A small miracle happened every day, Monday through Friday, this summer at the Forest Park Aquatic Center. Each weekday afternoon 14 counselors and 22 participants, as the campers are called, from the West Suburban Special Recreation Association (WSSRA) day camp in Forest Park showed pool patrons what is possible when people of good will work together.
The WSSRA website states that it is “a consortium of nine park districts and two villages in the Western Suburbs which collaborate to provide recreation programs for adults and children who have a physical impairment, a mental disability, or any other type of disability.” Forest Park is one of five villages where WSSRA runs summer day camps. The participants are 13 through 22-year-olds who have been diagnosed with disorders like Downs Syndrome, Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Fragile X Syndrome and Asperger’s Syndrome.
“One of our sayings at WSSRA ‘is fun through recreation,'” explained Jeff Schultz, the site supervisor for what is officially called the Forest Park Developmental Delayed Day Camp and a special ed teacher during the school year. “I’ve always liked helping out this demographic. I look forward to my summer job every year. Here I’m not grading papers or writing individual educational programs. I’m simply having fun with them.”
The miracle is partly due to the fact that so many governmental bodies and individuals work together to make sure kids with special needs are able to have the fun Schultz talked about. District 91, for example allows the WSSRA to use the Middle School gym rent-free for their clubhouse.
Superintendent Louis Cavallo said, “WSSRA provides a very much needed resource to the families of Forest Park and surrounding communities that have children with disabilities. We welcome the use of our facilities by WSSRA so that they can provide this fantastic opportunity.”
The Park District of Forest Park charges nothing for the use of the pool. Larry Piekarz, the director of the park district who also sits on the WSSRA board of directors, said, “We think of them as an extension of our staff. They’re doing the job that we can’t do.”
Schultz said, “The managers at the pool will bend over backwards to assist us. We’ve been coming here for nine years, and they know some of our kids need a little extra help.”
Schultz, who is a Forest Park resident himself, is an example of the counselors’ commitment to and affection for the young people they work with. “One of the reasons I was put on this earth is to help kids with special needs,” he said.
“This is definitely my calling. I’m so comfortable with these kids. I love them like my brothers and sisters,” he added.
A typical day begins at 9 a.m. with the participants singing, doing arts and crafts, playing games, doing team building, eating lunch and changing clothes for the pool.
Patrick Milburn is 22 years old, has been a participant in the camp for the last ten years and loves going to the pool. When at the pool he likes to swim and go down the water slide. When not at the pool he likes playing basketball and is a member of the WSSRA Bobcats softball team. He’s won a second place medal in the hundred meter dash in the Special Olympics. He works folding towels and moving equipment around at the Fitness Formula Club in Oak Park and does cleaning at Opportunity Knocks. “I love coming here,” he said of the day camp. “The counselors are fun and nice.”
But another part of the miracle is that these so called developmentally delayed young people often give to the community more than they receive.
Marek Burchett, who will begin her sophomore year at DePauw University in the fall, is finishing up her first summer as a day camp counselor. “Coming in every day and seeing the kids— I’ve learned so much about them. It’s not like I see them as people with disabilities. I see them as just kids. I learn new stuff from them every day. They’re teaching me.”
“I tell stories about the campers to my friends all the time,” she continued. “Like Charlie. He loves Batman. One day he came in and said he was Batman he gave all the staff a superhero names. I was Supergirl. Another camper is named Cynthia. She’s really funny. When we push her in her wheelchair—constructed from PVC piping—into the pool, she’ll try to splash me with her legs.
“When you think you’re having a bad day, just look at one of these kids. They have it ten times worse than you, and they’re happy. I want people to take away that they should appreciate what they have.”
Schultz recalled one of his favorite stories. “One day while we were at the pool a downpour with lightning hit us. The lifeguards blew their whistles, and I’m standing there trying to get not only our campers but 400 other kids out of the pool safely. It was raining sideways. Everyone was running for cover. It was chaos. I felt like I was a field marshal in a combat zone.
“So, as I was trying to control everything, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was one of our participants who happened to love villains. He had his towel wrapped around his head like a villain, raised his arms and went ‘wo, ho, ha, ha’ with a big smile on his face. I just couldn’t help but laugh. It calmed me down and reminded why we’re here—to have fun—and that everything was going to be OK.”
It’s not just the counselors who learn from the participants. Schultz explained, “When we come to the pool, we expose our program to the pool patrons from the community. They see our kids interacting with other kids and having fun. There’s a lot of fear, because they don’t what these disabilities are.
“They can ask questions: ‘what’s wrong with her?’ I love to hear that,” Schultz said.
“When I see kids staring, I always go up to them and say, ‘it looks like you have some questions,’ and they’ll say, ‘why are her arms like that?’ And I’ll say, ‘think of the morning when you stretch your arms, because they’re stiff. Well, she’s doing that all the time, and she can’t control that. They just need a little extra help.'”
Schultz continued, “The more they know, the less they’re afraid. It builds up compassion.”
“I feel like every day we’re doing God’s work,” Schultz added. “We’re here to help out the ones who are less fortunate to have fun.”