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Students provide physical activities and recreation for area youth with disabilities

Editor's Note: The PRIDE program will host several more weeks during the spring 2011 semester. To arrange for interviews, video or photographs of the sessions, contact Dr. Marquell Johnson at 715-836-3948 or

PRIDE - young people enjoying a game
Young people enjoy a game during a session of PRIDE, a program that helps area youth who have disabilities be more physically active. More than 40 UW-Eau Claire student volunteers work with the youngsters during weekly sessions each semester. (UW-Eau Claire photo by Bill Hoepner)
PRIDE - boy playing with a ball
Nicholas Napolitano plays with a ball during a session of the PRIDE program. Through the program, UW-Eau Claire student volunteers work with area youth who have disabilities to help them become more active. Nicholas, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, enjoys the weekly sessions because they let him participate in sports like many of his peers. (UW-Eau Claire photo by Bill Hoepner)
PRIDE - boy playing with a beach ball
Cullen Connolly hit a beach ball during a weekly PRIDE session in McPhee Center. The program gives dozens of area youth who have disabilities opportunities to be more physically active.
(UW-Eau Claire photo by Bill Hoepner)

RELEASED: April 20, 2011

EAU CLAIRE — It's nearly 6 p.m. on a Thursday evening when Dr. Marquell Johnson gathers 40-plus University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire student volunteers around him in a gymnasium on upper campus and asks if they'd read the email he forwarded.

As students nod, a clearly emotional Johnson tells them the email — which he said "tugged at his heart" — should make them feel good about themselves and its message should motivate them now and in the future.

Minutes later, Joseph, the 9-year-old boy whose mother sent the email, runs into the gym along with dozens of other excited youth participating in the Physical activity and Recreation for Individuals with Disabilities in the Eau Claire area program, a UW-Eau Claire initiative that offers physical activity and recreation for youth with disabilities.

"PRIDE is exactly what I have been looking for; an opportunity for my son to be able to grow and explore in his physical environment without the threat of competition, teasing or social stigma," Joseph's mom, Crystal Ruzicka of Chippewa Falls, wrote to Johnson, assistant professor of kinesiology. "The students who have worked with Joseph have been extraordinary. Joseph is a special boy with a unique sense of humor, and he has already broken through so many barriers in his journey through autism. My No. 1 desire for Joseph is that people love him, and your students have treated him with love."

Since Joseph was diagnosed with autism at age 3, he has been enrolled in numerous programs, but none have had the impact of PRIDE, Ruzicka said.

"This program has changed his way of interacting with classmates," Ruzicka said."He's choosing to play with other kids at recess on the playground. He's enjoying flag football in gym class. It's the first time he's interacting with other kids and I know it's because of PRIDE. He's more confident in his abilities and excited to be in school. I can't believe the difference in him."

Ruzicka said Joseph's changes began after just two weeks of participating in PRIDE, an eight-week program offered each fall and spring that brings together more than 30 youth from western Wisconsin who have disabilities. The youth are paired with university students who engage them in physical activities ranging from fitness to throwing balls to racing on scooters.

PRIDE participants, who are between ages 5 and 16, have a variety of disabilities, including autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and sensory impairments, said Johnson, who started the program in 2008 shortly after he joined the UW-Eau Claire faculty.

The program recently received a $4,200 Quality of Life grant from the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, which will be used to purchase two sport model wheelchairs.

"These new wheelchairs are just one part of the life-changing experience that the PRIDE program works to provide," Johnson said. "They are a tool, helping children with disabilities participate more fully and develop self-esteem and self-identity."

While many PRIDE participants live in the Chippewa Valley, others are from Neillsville, Osseo, Cadott and other western Wisconsin communities. The families' willingness to drive long distances to participate is an indication of how much they value the program, Johnson said.

"The first semester we offered the program, we had two kids in it," said Johnson. "The second semester, we had 11 kids and we've been growing ever since. There is clearly a need for this kind of program in our area. There aren't enough opportunities for people who have disabilities to be active. And this gives parents opportunities to connect with other parents who also have children with disabilities."

For Jennifer and Keith Napolitano of Eau Claire, PRIDE gives their 7-year-old son, Nicholas, a chance to feel like he's participating in a sport similar to many of his peers.

"We love it and he loves it," Jennifer Napolitano said of Nicholas, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. "It's good for him physically and it's good for him to be around other kids. He's an only child so he needs to be around others so he can learn social skills."

The $45 per semester fee also makes the program affordable for most families, especially when compared with costs associated with many other programs that assist families who have a child with a disability, said Keith Napolitano.

Johnson and his team of student volunteers are impressive, Jennifer Napolitano said. The activities Johnson plans are creative and the enthusiastic students make them fun, she said.

"You can tell by how they treat the kids that they love being around kids," Jennifer Napolitano said of the students. "They really want to be here. They clearly like helping."

The university students are kinesiology majors, many of whom have an interest in someday working with people with disabilities, Johnson said. Nearly a dozen student volunteers are enrolled in an adapted kinesiology course that requires them to assist with the PRIDE program while another 30-plus students volunteer each semester for their own reasons, he said.

"I joined PRIDE because I had heard how much fun it was from other people who were involved," said Alyssa French, a senior from De Pere. "I enjoy working with children. The feeling you get when you make a child's day is priceless."

French, who wants to be a pediatric physical therapist, said PRIDE has helped her learn to better communicate with and assist children with disabilities.

"You have to know how to adjust games and activities to meet the individual's needs and how to motivate them and keep them engaged," French said, adding that it's rewarding to help the children learn to perform different motor skills in a structured environment and to learn to interact and play with other children. "It's great to see how hard they work, and even more importantly, how happy they are when they're at the program."

Timothy Braunschweig said he volunteers for PRIDE because he enjoys the children and he knows the program will help him better prepare for his career as a physical education teacher. It's important for educators to have experience working with diverse populations, he said.

"I love helping these children be active," said Braunschweig, a senior from Mukwonago. "I've worked with several of these students at local schools so I know them on a personal level and I know how to communicate with them. Each child is different and you have to find ways to connect with them. I also like helping the other volunteers because working with some of these kids can be hard at first. I want the volunteers to have a positive experience because without them the program would not exist."

It's satisfying to see the children being active and having fun, Braunschweig said.

"You can see how much they love to come here and spend an hour just being a kid," he said. "No one here is going to put them down or stare. It's amazing to see how excited these children get when they are here."

The one-on-one attention given by the students to each child is among the program's strengths, said Lorrie Bur of Eau Claire, whose 13-year-old daughter participates in PRIDE.

"She loves the individual attention she gets from the students," Bur said of her daughter, Lydia, who has developmental delays. "She likes the social aspects of this program. And I enjoy the energy the college students bring to the room. I can't do the same kinds of things with her that they can do, so we both love it."

Johnson and many of the students talk with the parents before and after the sessions to better understand the children and their disabilities, an indication of how committed they are to ensuring the program meets the needs of each of the participants, Bur said.

"This program is different from anything else we've done because it's so personal," Bur said. "They really do see the participants as individuals. Dr. Johnson and the students know Lydia's name; they talk to her and ask her questions. She loves it."

Johnson said he based the program on similar programs he was involved in during his undergraduate and graduate years.

"I remember feeling completely tired after those programs but tired in a happy and satisfied way," Johnson said. "There is great value in students interacting with people who have different disabilities. It will help them become the best professional they can be."

Even more importantly, Johnson and his students also help the program's young participants be the best they can be, several parents said.

"It is so wonderful to bring Joseph to a place where he is thrilled to be, where he is completely accepted and where there is so much support," Ruzicka said. "When I brought him here, I thought he might have fun. To have it change his life so completely is incredible."

For more information about PRIDE, contact Dr. Marquell Johnson at 715-836-3948 or



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