By Christie Melhorn, October 20 2017 —
For most of my childhood, my mother was severely impacted by dementia. In that time, I viscerally experienced the struggles and stigma carried by the mentally and physically disabled. I remember how her hands fumbled with a fork and knife, the strain of writing her signature and her emotional outbursts — and passerby’s confused, tense stares that always followed. While I deeply admired her fight and perseverance, her behavior often scared me. I was uneducated about how to help her and manage my feelings, which created a sense of estrangement that impacted my entire family.
My experience is a common phenomenon that many are hesitant to openly discuss or acknowledge. According to Statistics Canada, almost 14 per cent of the Canadians ages 15 or older reported having a disability in 2013. Despite this, the increased social visibility of individuals with disabilities is still new but is being nurtured by many initiatives across Canada. One of these is the club Taking Strides at the University of Calgary, who are raising awareness of the capabilities of mentally and physically disabled children through physical literacy programs.
Taking Strides was founded in February 2016 by current club president Yegor Korchemagin and fellow U of C students Tanner Shakpa and Phil Surmanowicz. Physical literacy programs develop people’s ability to read and conduct themselves in a particular environment with confidence and control. Taking Strides’ goal is to provide a low-cost, adaptive program of this nature to children with disabilities and offer personal development opportunities to student volunteers.
“It’s a really unique opportunity and we want to share it with everyone so we can erase the stigma behind working with kids with disabilities. There’s this notion that we need to ‘fix’ kids with disabilities,” club vice-president Jay Kim said. “A disability does not define a child. We don’t say ‘disabled child’ but instead ‘a child with a disability.’ They’re just normal kids and are honestly more preserving, resilient and tenacious.”
“The community involvement volunteers experience develops really strong leadership skills. And that’s what we really want — for our volunteers to be leaders in the community and for advocacy,” Korchemagin added.
The club offers one-on-one mentorship in dryland and aquatic activities for children ages four– 13 with disabilities, the most common being autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. Korchemagin says Taking Strides aims to improve chilldren’s confidence and social skills rather than mastery of physical tasks.
“We’re not physiotherapy-based. We try to emphasize social interaction coupled with physical activity — it’s very important for developmental outcomes,” Korchemagin said. “We include group games so the kids can learn to interact, play and solve problems with others.”
Kim says that working with Taking Strides inspired him to take his volunteer role further.
“The first few sessions are very difficult. It seems like your child isn’t listening and you don’t know what they’re thinking,” Kim said. “But I’ve had a lot of kids who were super cold and stubborn in the beginning run up to me and hug me. I think that’s why a lot of volunteers come back — they feel a lot of fulfilment. There’s zero gain financially but the value of the relationships and experience you gain is not something you can quantify.”
In its early stages, Taking Stride’s built their mentorship approach on basic principles of physical literacy. The club is now partnered with U of C’s Adaptive Physical Activity Program and Mount Royal University’s Children’s Adaptive Physical Activity Program who assist with the programs’ structure.
Students from all faculties are welcome to volunteer. Prior experience is not necessary, as Taking Strides offers thorough volunteer orientations. But Kormechagin and Kim say that the best preparation for the role is to be flexible and ready to adapt to the children’s needs.
“A lot of our volunteers and even our executives didn’t have experience [working with children with disabilities] before Taking Strides,” Korchemagin said. “Our orientations explain the different disabilities and simulate situations volunteers might encounter. But every disability exists on a spectrum. No matter how much we teach, you won’t know what you’re kid is like until you start working with them. There are no formulas. But you learn to adapt and be supportive of the child.”
The theme of adaptability is largely visible in Taking Strides’ dryland program. This involves one-on-one sessions where volunteers guide their assigned child through different stations that develop gross or fine motor skills, such as throwing balls or building Lego.
“We have the volunteer adapt to the child at each station so they can reach their fullest potential,” Kim said. “We won’t have a child who struggles with fine motor skills immediately try to throw a ball through a hoop. We want them to learn to hold the ball in their hand first. It’s a win-win because the kids get to be in an adaptive program and the volunteers get the experience of learning to adapt to a child.”
Students are asked to apply to volunteer on the club website before the winter semester. This gives Taking Strides adequate time to interview and pair volunteers with children based on personality, possible experience and the expectations of the children’s parents. Accepted volunteers then dedicate 60–90 minutes every weekend during the semester to the program, which count towards practicum hours for athletic therapy and community rehabilitation students.
As busy students themselves, the Taking Strides team is flexible with scheduling. Currently, dryland sessions are held at the Foothills Alliance Church and the aquatics program takes place at the Shouldice Aquatic Center.
Korchemagin and Kim agree that the club’s collaborative and challenging environment facilitates significant personal and professional growth in many areas of their lives. Particularly, they have learned to embrace learning as a difficult but constructive process.
“Obviously not everything we’ve done has worked. Learning from failure is really important. This experience has made me a lot more empathetic and humble. I’ve learned lot about myself and how I handle life situations,” Korchemagin said.
“My outside perspective of kids with disabilities was very robotic,” Kim added. “Our philosophy is that we have a lot to learn and won’t do everything perfectly so we want feedback to make it the best physical literacy program we can offer.”
Korchemagin and Kim are in the process of transforming Taking Strides into an official charity. Their goal is to cement the club’s structure and organization to ensure the success of Taking Strides’ future participants.
“We want to make it easy for the next people to transition into our roles because this organization needs to be prolonged for the next generation of students and kids,” Kim said.
Click here to learn more about Taking Strides.