Since summer began, the intimate group part of the ‘Parks and Rec’ program has been picking up litter and raking leaves across the vast park. Most recently, they began to spruce up heavily chipped park benches with a layer of fresh dark green paint – the same color as their matching t-shirts and uniform for the job.
The program out of St. Mary’s provides therapeutic and rehabilitative services for children and young adults with cognitive and physical disabilities. It seeks to improve the quality of life for those aged 18-30 by instilling crucial life skills and a sense of independence. The members have a range of disabilities including autism, cerebral palsy, neurological disorders and from trauma. With individual goals from the program varying, some may be practicing their handwriting while others strengthen their fine motor skills during physical therapy.
“We wanted to take their treatment to a different level,” said Melissa Smith, who runs the occupational therapy department at St. Mary’s and set up the program. “That’s when we started to think about what we can do within the realm of their vocational training.”
She reached out to the Parks Department to see if a project at the nearby Crocheron Park, just two blocks away, could be organized. They were receptive and gladly accepted the extra help, mentioning that with a limited staff they were unable to prioritize aesthetic improvements.
“They had probably two years of leaves surrounding the tennis court that none of their workers ever had the time to get to. And on the first day, our young adults bagged 30 huge bags of leaves,” recalled Smith during one of the park sessions. “It was great. They couldn’t believe that they were so thrilled.”
Inside their space in the hospital, vocational training can only go so far. Instead of teaching the young adults how to grocery shop by making a list, they’ll take them to Target and run through the sequence of shopping for essentials. And now every Thursday, the members leave the park in a better state than they found it and walk away with enhanced skills and a sense of accomplishment.
Other vocational training programs include the Breakfast Club, where the young adults sell breakfast snacks and coffee out of the lobby of the hospital. It improves job readiness skills such as working with money, fulfilling orders and customer service through hands-on service.
The facilitators of the program hope that when the young adults age out at 30 years old, they will walk away with the confidence and skills to step into other roles in the real world.
“It’s really to give them some vocational skills, so that when they do leave us, we’re preparing them to enter into the community,” said Smith.
The Day Healthcare Program has approximately 50 young adults who arrive at St. Mary’s almost daily for services such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and feeding assistance. They also offer an after-school program for those who are under 18 and attend school during the day.
Joanne Agoncillo, one of the occupation therapists on staff, assessed the vocational skills of everyone in the group and placed them in programs that would best fit their existing skills, while also challenging them enough to grow from a new experience. Approximately six were selected for the park program.
“Being able to do that here, we were able to focus on their independence, sense of responsibility, problem solving, working as a team and kind of building that foundation for self sufficiency,” said Agoncillo. “So as soon as they step into the role, they’re able to exercise these skills and give back to their community at the same time.”
Both Smith and Agoncillo say that they’ve received positive feedback from park goers who are glad to see the group sprucing up the grounds. And the park’s employees have also expressed gratitude. The initiative will continue up until the week before Thanksgiving.
“Based on certain disabilities, it can challenge them in different ways. When they’re out of their comfort zone, you really truly see them in such a different light. They’re put to the test and really get to see their full capabilities,” added Agoncillo.