Time Flies When You’re Having Fun

FF Every morning before the kids arrive the volunteers and staff gather around to talk about the previous day and the plan for the ones ahead. We discuss what went well, what could have been better, what we are doing differently for the day, and what we need moving forward. Yesterday, we met for our final meeting. No children were on their way, and no plans were discussed. It was volunteer appreciation day, and everybody arrived at the foundation for brunch and a slide show to wrap up the amazing summer that we had. It was very different than our usual meetings, and it was much more moving than I had expected.

Throughout the program, we discussed the successes of the children. We took pictures of their smiling faces and laughed along with them when funny things occurred. As we moved through the days one at a time, our focus was on the kids. I did not realize until the end of the program how much I had gained throughout the summer program. I only knew a few of the volunteers and staff at the Foundation when I first started this summer. In six short weeks we had all become a team and working together was a true pleasure. After the slide show was over, I was amazed and touched by the conversations that took place. Certificates of appreciation were given out, and with each certificate came comments and praise not only from the staff, but from the other volunteers as well. It was clear that everyone was proud to have been apart of the program. The chatting and reminiscing continued, and it was as if nobody wanted to leave the center. The past six weeks we had worked so hard to help the kids and as we sat together eating grapes and zucchini bread, it was very apparent that we had also been helping each other.NN

 

UUU Every day when we left the center, it was with smiles on our faces. No matter what challenges we faced throughout the morning, they were strongly outweighed by the laughs and successes of the day. If it rained, we played. If someone fell down, they jumped back up. In the riding ring tears filled the eyes of the volunteers as children’s faces lit up from atop the horse, as if they were on top of the world. Having the privilege to work and volunteer at the Laura Foundation was an incredible experience that was obvious in the glowing smiles and stories of everyone talking about it. As one of the volunteers said as we avoided leaving the center for the final time of the summer, “It isn’t something that makes sense unless you experience it. You see the looks in the kids’ eyes and the smiles on their faces and you get goose bumps. It just makes your day.“ We see their worries and struggles melt away as they glide around the ring, paint with their favorite colors, or bowl a strike for the first time, and ours melt away with them.

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“LOOK MOM! OVER HERE”

As the last week of programming for the summer, kids were encouraged to invite their families to the center to show off what they had been working on for the past six weeks. Grandparents, parents, and siblings spent the day watching their student ride their favorite horse, participating in games the kids had mastered, and looking through the amazing art projects they had created throughout the summer.

It was awesome to see the pride and comfort on the kids’ faces as they showed their parents and grandparents around and explained the rules of their favorite game to their siblings. It was clear that they were excited to show off their accomplishments and interests, and the parents were thrilled to see what their children had been doing.

The different aspects of the program that stuck with each child intrigued me. Each child was asked to tell us what their favorite thing of the summer was, and all of the answers were unique.

“Mindy the horse.”

“Trotting.”

“The art room.”

“Being on the horse.”

“Scooters.”

“Brushing the horse.”

I loved hearing that among the many activities and games throughout the summer, each child found one thing that stuck out for them. It was even more rewarding to hear that everybody had such different experiences throughout the program. They all played the same games and rode the same horses, but each had their own personal experience that they would remember fondly.

Watching them drag their parents around the center to show them where the bathroom is or their favorite toy, and telling their parents that they had to wait to see them ride was heart-warming and adorable. I had watched the kids having fun all summer, but it was a joy to watch them become the teacher to their parents as they explained the center as if it were their own. Their comfort and pride in the center was more than I ever could have hoped for and was beyond gratifying.

Playing in the Rain

IMG_2127When the kids come to the center each week, many of them look forward to riding more than anything. Each student has their favorite horse and most of them can’t put their helmets on fast enough when their name is called to go out to the riding ring. We love to see the smiles on their faces as they trot for the first time or try a new exercise, and we do everything in our power to make sure that the kids get their time with the horses.

Every week I wake up on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday morning to go to the Foundation and the first thing I do is look out my window. If I see cloudy skies or hear the pitter-patter of rain, I immediately wonder if the kids are going to be able to ride. The riding staff works as hard as they can to get the kids onto the horses, but sometimes the weather has other plans. As we have talked about on the rainy days, the weather is up to chance and we have no control over it. Although the first rainy day brought a few disappointed faces during circle time, they quickly learned that rain does not deter us from fun with the horses. Sandy and the rest of the riding staff are very quick to think of activities incorporating the horses that result in smiles and laughs just the same.

On past rainy days the students have worked on grooming, learning horse parts, and drawings of horses. They have also loved using chalk to decorate the horses. The riding staff are amazing at changing their plans and lessons to work with the weather, and although we have been lucky to have very few rainy days, each one seems to develop into an eventful and productive morning for the students and staff.

Today was a rainy day. As it was the last day of the summer program for our SAU 13 group, the riding staff was determined to make it as enjoyable as possible. I walked outside to see what they were doing, and the horse was completely “made-up.” The kids had taken chalk and given the horse a total make over-blush, eye shadow, and they drew on eyelashes. Mindy the horse loved the attention, and they even added diving rings around the ears as earrings. After the horse was all dolled up, the kids took their chalk and created tic-tac-toe boards all over the horse’s body and immediately entered into a tournament. The kids were laughing and smiling ear to ear. Fortunately, there was a break in the storm and each student was able to get on and ride for just a few minutes, which ended up giving them more time with the horses than usual.IMG_2139

It is very challenging when you’re expecting to do one thing and the plan suddenly changes as a result of something you can’t control. For some of the kids, it can be very difficult to change their expectations and understand why they cannot do what they had been planning on. Today was a silly, fun, and memorable day with the horses and although the plans changed, the kids were happy to participate in the unique activities with their favorite horses. I have never watched a more energetic round of tic-tac-toe, and all of the kids handled the change gracefully and truly enjoyed themselves-even in the pouring rain.

The Groups That Get Each Other

IMG_2051One of the most amazing things I have seen throughout our summer program has been the way the children within each group interact with one another. As classmates during both the regular school year and the summer program, they know each other far better than we are able to within the six weeks we work with them. On multiple occasions, I have seen the kids looking out for each other and helping one another through challenges and frustrations in ways that we as teachers would never be able to. Although social skills can be very hard for children, especially with autism, I have seen many instances in which the level of understanding and caring has not only surprised me, but also avoided potential problems.

A few weeks ago, the kids were playing a game focused on both giving and following directions. They took turns assigning tasks to one another, and completing the activities. One of the boys was very excited when he was instructed to ride three laps around the room on the scooter, but was not happy when he was not allowed to continue for a fourth. He told us that if he could not ride the scooter anymore, then he was no longer going to play the game. A few more rounds went by, and we were allowing him to take a break and thought that he would come back to the game when he was ready. The next student to give directions selected the one taking a break and said; “I think you should ride on the green (flat) scooter twice.” Although it was not the speedy razor scooter that he had originally loved, this was enough of a compromise that it brought him back into the activity smoothly and happily. In addition to being an activity that he liked, the student did not feel put on the spot or defensive because he brought back into the game in a subtle, social, and natural way. His classmate was able to bring him back into the game with no fuss or extra attention and all four boys were happy. Although I thought this was an amazing and helpful move, I did not really think much about it until two weeks later.

Fast forward two weeks, and another group of kids was working together to create a story-one of those add on chain stories that get more and more elaborate as the story goes around the circle. One of the kids had a difficult time coming up with something to add on. As the seconds passed, it was clear that his nerves were increasing and his focus was decreasing. Without being asked, one of his classmates crawled across the circle and whispered something into his ear. His face lit up, and it was clear that his friend had given him an idea. “There was a magical forest made of candy!” He added, and the story continued. For the rest of the activity, the one that had been struggling was smiling and attentive. Not only was the hint enough to get him back on track, but it was something that he was interested in, making him want to hear the rest of the story.

I immediately thought back to the day with the scooter, and realized that these groups of kids are far closer to each other than we could possibly become in six weeks. Even with unlimited time with the children, we would still be unable to achieve the peer-peer connection that these students have and deserve. The interactions between the groups and the relationships they have with each other are strong and meaningful. Even though they sometimes disagree or don’t get along, they spend so much time together and using ts within the center has helped us to achieve a lot, and it is amazing to see them looking out for each other without us asking them to.

Over the Beam and Around the Cones…to the Finish Line We Go!

On your mark, get set, go!!! Over the balance beam, figure eight on the scooter, three bounces on the ball, beanbag toss, two rounds of bowling. Today at the center, the kids were asked to work together to create an obstacle course. They were each asked to pick a toy or an object and create a task. Once the activities were placed around the room, they strung together into a fantastic obstacle course.

Watching the kids build the course was incredible. Cardboard boxes became beanbag holes, circles were placed on the floor in order to show where to stand, and the rules were explained thoroughly-not by the teachers, but by the kids.

As they patiently waited their turn to go through the course, they were cheering each other on. “Look how fast he’s going!” “Make sure you go to the bouncy ball next!” “Two turns at bowling!” In addition to cheering for each other, there were many personal celebrations. A perfect beanbag toss resulted in a leap of excitement over the box and onto the next activity, and strikes and spares were cause for fist bumps and excited exclamations, “YES! STRIKE!!”

They not only had to wait their turn, but once they ran out of the start, they had to remember the order of obstacles. Following a string of directions can be very difficult, and they did a fantastic job at connecting the dots between the toys placed all over the room. The creativity involved in creating the course and the focus and patience needed to complete it was a challenge that every studentaccepted and handled with excitement and joy.

Foosball Kicks Frustration

Blog Entry #2: July 30, 2014

foosballIn the past few weeks all of the students have seemed to love playing foosball, and it is truly amazing to watch them play. For all young children, taking turns, accepting loss, and balancing competition and sportsmanship are tough skills to learn. Games involving these types of social skills can often lead to frustration, which can be a particularly hard emotion to handle for children with autism. As a result I have been delighted to watch the kids work together and cheer each other on in various weekly games of foosball.

Although it is not in the schedule of the program, there is a foosball table in the back room of the center. During snack time and other various breaks, foosball has become the perfect activity. When more than two students want to play, I have seen them happily rotate between spectator and player, or team up with two, sometimes three kids on either side of the table to work together and play the game.

Monday morning, one of the kids was starting to get stressed out and as he started to walk around the room, he spotted the table. “What is this?” he asked, “Can we play?” Within minutes he had a smile lighting up his face as he jumped up and down celebrating a goal. When one of his friends came over to join, they played against each other in a competitive but friendly game. Volunteers were cheering them on, and both boys cheered each time a goal was scored, no matter which goal the ball bounced into.

Foosball has always been a fun game, but watching the kids play is truly impressive. Not only can they kick the ball so quickly it’s hard to keep track, but they love the game and continue to play with sportsmanship, excitement, and smiles.

Blog Post #1: July 28, 2014

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meghanMy name is Meaghan Macdonald, and I am interning with the Laura Foundation this summer. I’m going into my senior year at Denison University with a double major in Psychology and Spanish. I was a Special Olympic swim coach in high school for the Mount Washington Valley Dolphins (Special Olympic swim team that competes at various meets across NH, including the Summer Games at UNH), and I immediately knew that I wanted to pursue a career in working with children and adults living with developmental disabilities. Because I was unsure exactly what I wanted to do with this interest, a Psychology major was a perfect fit. It is a general subject, but each class I have taken relates to the world of disability and it is a great basis for graduate school when I narrow down the specifics of what I would like to do. I studied abroad in Spain last fall, and decided I would continue studying the language, turning it into my second major.

In addition to my classes, I worked with the HOPE for Autism program at Denison during my freshman year of college, and I loved working with individuals with Autism using ABA therapy and practicing various skills. In looking for internships for the summer, I had a hard time finding something that would connect my various interests, I was looking to gain experience in organizational administration, while working with children with disabilities in an active and engaging way. I did not want to sit in a cubicle all summer, and my internship with the Laura Foundation has proved to fulfill all of these interests and more.

I have been with the Foundation since late May, and will continue with them through mid-August. It has been an amazing experience so far and I have been surprised by how many people have approached me wanting to learn more about the program. “When are the kids there?” they ask, “What do you do with them?” Everybody has heard of the Laura Foundation, and they are interested to know what we are up to. My hope in this blog is to answer these

questions. In an attempt to share my experience with those outside of our staff, volunteers, participants, and donors, I have decided to start this blog. The work being done at the center is truly wonderful, and I would like to share the smiles and accomplishments of our days for the remainder of my time with the Foundation. I will be blogging about my experiences in the center in hopes of spreading some of the joy that the other staff and I feel every day from the minute the children run in the door until they pile onto the bus at the end of the day.