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[whitespace] Southwest YMCA physability program brings able-bodied and disabled together

Saratoga--Mixing physically disabled youngsters with those who are able- bodied is the latest trend in the education field. The key word is inclusion and it covers every segment of life--recreation, employment and education.

The Southwest YMCA is offering the inclusion package for the second year. Dalia Nir is the coordinator for the program. The inclusion program offers youngsters the chance to respect their differences, to feel comfortable with diversity and "to live diversity," as Nir thinks of it.

Placing disabled and able-bodied youngsters together is a complete turnaround from the former philosophy, where segregation was the key. Special programs for those with special needs took place in a separate room, separate school or separate camp in the recent past.

Now the national trend is for inclusion. Nir is staunchly on the side of inclusion. "It's not a part-time program," she says about the idea of integrating youngsters of all abilities. "Opening up more doors in the community needs to be available to everyone--everyone needs to have equal involvement."

There are 500 youngsters enrolled in the summer camps offered at the Southwest YMCA and 15 of those are children with special needs. The camps meet at Westmont High School and swimming is the focus on Saturdays.

With special needs youngsters participating in the program, more assistants are needed, and some of those assistants are volunteers. Indeed, some of the volunteer aides are disabled themselves.

Ross Francisco, 25, is one such volunteer. He helps out by keeping the 4- and 5-year-old campers involved, safe and out of trouble. "I tell them not to climb the fences," he says.

"Ross gets the kids involved; he loves singing and supervising," says Dani Nir, who is the site director for the 4- and 5-year-olds. (And daughter of Dalia Nir.)

Francisco works daily at the camps for six days a week and has an infectious enthusiasm for his duties. He's in charge of the kids' gym room, locks and unlocks the room, and brings up the rear to keep track of the flock. He serves as a timekeeper for events in some of the classes.

And he's hard pressed to come up with his favorite part of the day. "I like the whole thing," he says. He helps with arts and crafts projects, indicating a camp bracelet he made himself. During swim lessons, he acts as combination lifeguard and goal post, positioning himself as a destination point for the neophyte swimmers.

He invented a bean bag game that's played at camp that he calls Super Hot Potato. In this game, two bean bags are used simultaneously to tag out players, one going clockwise, the other counter-clockwise, a hyper-extenuated version of Hot Potato.

Francisco attends West Valley College, takes computer and physical education classes, and works at Taco Bell. On Sundays he helps with preschoolers at First Methodist Church. An avid sports fan, he has been on the field with the 49ers in a ceremonial occasion. He repeats the words "on the field" to underline their importance.

When Francisco was interviewed to work for the Y program "he passed with flying colors," says Dalia Nir.

Others with disabilities help out, too. Melissa Morton, though disabled, is "a wonderful swimmer," says Dani Nir, who takes those with special needs all around the pool, navigating them through the water. Matt takes the initiative with physical things such as cleaning up and making sure the right equipment is in the right place.

One young camper was afraid to get in the shower. But others encouraged him, saying, "Look, the water's warm," until he got up enough confidence to join them. One boy kept throwing a ball over the fence, thinking that was the object, until another camper showed him how to throw the ball and still keep the ball inside the fence.

"They don't think about their differences. They just try to teach them," Dani Nir says of how the able-bodied react to those who need more help.

Other Saratoga volunteers at the Southwest Y inclusion camps are mother/daughter teams who are members of the National Charity League. Comprised of mothers and their daughters, ages 11 through the teen years, the group's focus is giving back to the community.

Vicki Gochnauer and daughter Lisa are two such volunteers. Vicki Gochnauer says "We act as an extra set of eyes and hands; interact with the disabled campers." The able-bodied campers are accepting and also protective of the others, she says.

She recalls that after a swim lesson one child took another one under her wing. She made sure someone was there for him before leaving his side.

Rachel O'Gara, 16, says "I wanted to work with people (for her Charity League work) and it sounded like fun. It's one-to-one and I help them learn to swim." She can see considerable progress in her charges. One 7-year-old wouldn't go in the water and sat on the side of the pool the first time O'Gara was with him.

She wasn't able to come the next week, but two weeks later, there was the reluctant swim student--in the water, floating and learning to be comfortable in the water. "I could see a big difference in just two weeks," she says.

Another League member, Courtney Miyamoto, 17, says she can see quite a difference, too, in the children she helps one-on-one. "Some were scared. Sometimes it would take 10 minutes to coax them into the pool. And (once in) they would hang onto me, rather than the kickboard.

"Now they jump in when the signal is given. And they are confident enough to use the kickboard through the entire swim period, instead of clinging to me. I'm glad to have the opportunity to work here. Everything is different every day."

One of her campers hardly ever spoke in all the time she spent with him. Speech was difficult for him and just wasn't part of his behavior. Then one day in the water he suddenly called out, "Ready--set--go!" Miyamoto was stunned and so amazed. "You never know what they'll come up with," she explains.

Ellie Peterson, a League mother, considered her experiences volunteering during a field trip at the camp valuable. She says the disabled campers are accepted: "The other kids say 'hi' to them." But they definitely need full-time, unwavering attention.

"I was able to convince the youngster I was watching that he could climb the curved ladder. Whether he'll retain that confidence and be able to do it the next time he's at the park, I don't know."

Daughter Sophie Peterson, 15, says, "I really enjoyed being with the kids, disabled or not. You have to always be watching. You kind of get in the swim of things after you've been there a while. Realize what you need to do, learn to communicate better with them."

(Some of the children have difficulty with speech. They either don't talk or are hard to understand.)

Other volunteers also come from industry. In the Y's case, there are nuclear engineers from G.E. in a program labeled ELFUN. Two such volunteers are Gil Thacker of Campbell and Yoshi Sekinuma of San Jose.

Friends are made and respect is gained; everyone wins in inclusion, says Dalia Nir. To further the process there's an intergenerational Friendship Circle that meets twice a month--the first Wednesday of the month, from 1:30 to 3 p.m. and the third Thursday, from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

Some 20 to 50 people gather in these sessions to share dinner and conversation, trade ideas, establish contacts and make new friends. The goal is mainly social: to enjoy the lighter side of life. Besides summer camps, the Y offers bowling lessons, seated chair and wheelchair aerobics classes for the disabled throughout the year.

Before coming to Saratoga, Nir developed and coordinated the physability program in Jackson, Miss., where she worked for four years. Her college training has been in physiology, psychology and sociology.

"This is what the Y is all about," says Nir, "fostering an atmosphere of trust and communication where all people are valued."

People with disabilities have the opportunity here to acquire new skills and social relationships, explore recreation options and add a personally fulfilling quality to their lives.

The Soutwest YMCA is seeking volunteer counselors for its next Physability swim session which starts Sept. 12. For more information, call Dalia Nir at 408.370.1877, ext. 36.

Mary Ann Cook

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Web extra to the August 10-16, 2000 issue of Metro.

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