YMCA Moves Toward Full Integration

The Skyway/East YMCA is on the leading edge of accessibility. Historically, people with developmental disabilities were segregated from the rest […]

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The Skyway/East YMCA is on the leading edge of accessibility.

Historically, people with developmental disabilities were segregated from the rest of society – often institutionalized.  Today, similar programs are available for people with and without disabilities but the programs are usually separate.  Now, the YMCA of Greater Saint Paul’s Skyway/East Branch is going a step beyond.

Through a four-pronged open-ended program, the YMCA is taking steps to integrate programs and open up facilities.  The program’s four parts include:  staff training, building improvements, transitional programming and program integration.

“This emphasis on accessibility fits right in with our mission,” said YMCA Branch Executive Deb Wilkens Roche.  “Our goal is to meet people’s needs and help them reach their potentials – no matter what their abilities.”

The move to fully integrate programs will be kicked off this summer with Day Camp.  Last summer a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old, both quadriplegic as a result of car accidents, attended day camp for six weeks as part of an integration pilot project.  The older boy could operate his wheelchair with his mouth and was fully able to communicate.  The younger boy was alert but less able to communicate.  A nurse stayed with them, and transportation was provided by Metro Mobility.

“We went into this having no idea how it would work out,” said YMCA Program Director Liz Shier.  “We expected to have trouble with some of the other campers.  But to our surprise, the kids we thought would be the most difficult ended up setting really positive examples.  They’d wheel the boys around and make sure they were included in all the activities.  Meanwhile, the boys themselves were an inspiration to the other campers and to the staff.  We all grew from the experience.”

This year, the YMCA has actively advertised and promoted its Day Camp as an integrated program.  Already, children with a range of disabilities – from muscular dystrophy to Down’s Syndrome – have signed up.  Counselors are going through special trainings to learn how to accommodate and include all campers, and how to handle special situations such as diaper changing.  Counselors will be assigned to campers in a one-to-one ratio wherever needed.

Transitional programming has also become a major emphasis.

One-and-a-half years ago, the YMCA took over the Kellogg Club, a recreational and social club for adults with developmental disabilities.  Since then, the club’s membership has grown to 83 active participants.

The club’s popularity stems from its focus: empowering people to make choices for themselves (club members decide on club activities); providing members an opportunity to meet others; and improving  members’ confidence and self-esteem.  A  primary  club goal  is to foster greater independence and  self-reliance  among members so they can participate in the YMCA and in the  community on their own.

“So often people are told what they can’t do instead of what they can do,” said Kellogg Club Director Dan Zimmer.  “The Kellogg Club tries to help them see what they can do.”

In the area of training, all staff are required to attend periodic workshops designed to help them better serve people of all abilities.  On June 3, for example, all customer-contact staff will be required to attend a sign language training at the YMCA’s East location, 1075 Arcade St., St. Paul.

Facility improvements will take several years because of the costs involved.  Currently the Skyway location is fully accessible while the East location lacks an elevator.  Plans are in the works to correct this.

“We’ve always welcomed all people into our programs and facilities,” said Branch Executive Roche.  “Now we are actively taking steps to make our programs and facilities welcoming for them.”

“There will be an ongoing learning and growing process for everyone involved – participants with disabilities, those without and our staff.  Hopefully all will benefit through increased understanding, awareness and acceptance.  It fits right into our mission – to build self-esteem, mutual respect and a stronger community for all.”

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