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Grand Forks summer program caters to students with disabilities

After students long for the start of summer all school year, the arrival of freedom opens up to availability of endless activities. But with the first month or two of warm weather, swimming, fun and games behind them, monotony can turn to boredom for kids, making them briefly wish for the start of school once again.

 This is not the case for the students of the Grand Forks School District’s S.M.I.L.E. program, aimed to keep K-12 students with disabilities entertained during the height of the summer season with field trips, activities and projects.


 Thirty students with varying disabilities are recommended for the Summer Mentors for Integrated Leisure Experiences program by case managers, social workers and school district staff.


 “The school districts and school programs know enough if this would be a good program for the children, and we trust them to make that decision,” says Lynne Roche, special and cultural events manager with the Grand Forks Park District. “We’re there to help keep them busy in the summer. It’s hard for parents to get out with them all the time. We’re there to fill the void in the summer.”


 Held at Wilder Elementary School, the students are within walking distance to numerous summer staples such as Dairy Queen and Riverside Pool and Park. The students make trips to the pool twice per week and have assigned, experienced leaders at their side as they splash around in the cool water.


 With a fee of $165, the program will run from 1 to 4:30 p.m., June 2 to July 31 this year. The price includes the swimming fee and covers all transportation for the numerous field trips the groups will take.


 “It’s a chance for kids that have disabilities that aren’t able to access the regular summer school opportunities,” says Program Director Jamie Toutenhoofd. “It gives them a chance be able to participate to the best of their abilities with the assistance of leaders.”


 Past field trips have taken students to the city fair, as well as Stable Days, a horse ranch where students ride, learn about and care for the animals. This summer, Toutenhoofd says the leaders plan to take groups to the movie theater. To keep things organized, they split the kids into groups based on age for all activities.


 Music therapy is also planned twice a week, which Roche says is a highlight of the week for all students to sing, take turns and learn social skills. Some will also attend hippotherapy sessions, which is a form of physical, occupational and speech therapy. But the daily schedule is not set in stone, and will mold to fit every student, based on their needs.


 “You have to be able to work with the different disabilities,” Roche says. “Some students need one- on-one time, some need to be in groups. It’s a recreation program, not a school setting, by any means. We want it to be a fun program.”


 On those rainy days that oftentimes cloud the fun outdoor schedule, the students aren’t left without options. Art projects, board games, movies and popcorn and an open gym at the school offer variety and keep the students focused on having a good time.


Guided by enthusiasm


 The leaders for the recreational program come with different backgrounds, many focusing on speech, occupational therapy and education. Some leaders even join just to get a chance to mentor the young students and involve themselves in fun outdoor summer activities.


 “It’s such a good experience for [the leaders], and for them to get to work with various disabilities,” Roche says. “It’s a fun job for everyone, because you’re not sitting behind a desk; you get to go to the pool and play games. It’s a great opportunity for leaders to get experience in their field.”


 Toutenhoofd says she sees many leaders return each summer, because the experience is so fulfilling. “I have a lot of people that return for work, because they enjoy it,” she says. “They love the kids.”


 When students have grown out of the program, some find themselves return as mentors. Those students-turned-mentors are a great addition. Not only are they familiar with the program layout, but they are also understanding to those with similar disabilities.


 Still, the challenge remains to keep everyone busy and interested. “You’ve got to be on your toes and you’ve got to keep changing things up,” Toutenhoofd says. “At the beginning of the summer, things are a novelty — playing cards is great. But at the end of July, they don’t want to play cards anymore.”


 Though the leaders are in charge of keeping the students busy and the energy high, it is the joy and enthusiasm from the students that keep the guides coming back.


 “I feel blessed that I get to work with these kids every day,” Toutenhoofd says. “They’re so much fun, and they genuinely love life. They make me smile. I just love my job.”