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Circle of friends create fun, inclusive fitness event at SJHS for students with special needs

| October 27, 2016
picture of North Colonie Kids Care students, October 2016

Natalie McLaughlin, Cathleen Mahoney, Danielle Roemer, Maya Bonds and Rachel Dentinger organized “Get in the Game Day”, an event at Shaker Junior High School that provided an opportunity for students with special needs to participate in a day of fun physical activities and games with support from their peers.

MEET SHAKER HIGH SCHOOL 9TH GRADERS, RACHEL DENTINGER, NATALIE MCLAUGHLIN, CATHLEEN MAHONEY, DANIELLE ROEMER AND MAYA BONDS — “NORTH COLONIE KIDS CARE” OCTOBER 2016 FEATURE

Last June, a special event called “Get in the Game Day” invited students with special needs from throughout North Colonie to participate in a day of fun physical activities and games at Shaker Junior High School.

The event was organized by five friends—Rachel Dentinger, Natalie McLaughlin, Cathleen Mahoney, Danielle Roemer and Maya Bonds—who were in eighth grade at the time and were planning a group project to earn their Girl Scout Silver Award. They worked together to forge the concept for Get in the Game Day, inspired by their friendship with Maya. The circle of friends sought to merge their passion for sports with their aspiration to help the district’s special needs students.

“Cathleen, Danielle, Natalie and I are all really into sports, so we thought it would be a good idea to bring the two together,” said Rachel. “We wanted to create an event that would be friendly to Maya and would incorporate the things that she likes to do. So, we included an arts and crafts booth at Game Day that had a sports-based theme and everyone could have fun doing.”

“We wanted to provide a positive and fun experience that that would allow them to participate in athletics in a comfortable and supportive atmosphere,” Natalie added.

To advise them on appropriate fitness activities, the students enlisted the help of Shaker Junior High physical education teacher and coach Leigh Stevens to be their project adviser. She connected the students with Greg Bell and other special education teachers at the junior high to help support the project.

“I was approached by the girls and their scout leaders to meet and discuss their ideas. The students presented their plan and I was very impressed by their choice to organize a day promoting healthy choices,” Mr. Bell said. “As a special education teacher, I recognize how important additional social and physical opportunities are for this population of students. I was happy to offer feedback to assist in making their plan successful.”

The students also met with a specialist from the Wildwood School who works with special needs children to learn how best to adapt the physical activities and make them accessible.

“With the specialist’s recommendations we were able to adapt all the games,” said Rachel. “We had kickball with two bases instead of four, and two obstacle courses, an easy one and a not-so-easy one, where the obstacles were placed wider apart so that children in wheelchairs could participate.”

Shaker Junior High School Family and Consumer Sciences teacher Tracy Henry helped the students develop a nutritional component for Get in the Game Day that emphasized the importance of drinking water to stay hydrated and eating a well-balanced diet to stay healthy.

Get in the Game Day featured 10 to 12 stations, included dancing, yoga, bowling, basketball, kickball, parachute games, arts/crafts, a photo booth and more. The friends recruited 50 volunteers to help run the games and the stations.

“It was a nice surprise to have so many volunteers at the junior high so willing to give their time and effort,” said Danielle. “The kids who came, you could tell they were just having so much fun.”

The activities started with an ice breaker so that participants could learn names and get to know a little bit about each other. “Mainly small activities to introduce volunteers and participants and have them be comfortable with each other,” said Cathleen.

Get in the Game Day was not without some challenges. On the day of the event, for example, the weather was less than cooperative. “We had planned for the activities to be outside, but had to move indoors because it rained,” said Rachel.

The students agreed, however, that being indoors actually worked better. “A lacrosse tournament had been scheduled on the same day,” said Natalie, “so going inside allowed us to be closer together, making it easier to manage the noise level.”

It also taught the students an important lesson. “We learned that you have to be able to adapt to changes and be flexible,” said Cathleen.

To complete the Get in the Game Day project, the students developed a Playbook containing nine lesson plans consisting an ice-breaker, a sports activity and a nutrition lesson geared toward special needs students. The Playbook will enable groups like Perfect Pals at the junior high school or Best Buddies at the high school to replicate Get in the Game Day activities with their students.

What was the most rewarding aspect of Get in the Game Day for the student organizers?

“The best part was seeing how happy all the kids were to participate, especially Maya,” said Danielle.

“Getting students involved in activities that they may not otherwise be able to do,” said Rachel. “Maya really liked it, and that was a big part of the reason we did this.”

“It was great that we could all come together and make a difference for our community and help make a fun experience for these kids,” said Natalie.

“It was the best day ever!” Maya said. “I was in charge of an activity station and I liked participating in the games. My favorite was the obstacle course!”

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