Cheers erupting from Central High School’s stadium are common, but on October 22 the excitement on the field belonged not to the Bears’ football team, but to 235 Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation (EVSC) elementary school students with special needs.
Each year, students with physical, cognitive or verbal challenges enjoy a break from the classroom during the EVSC Special Olympics Unified Champions Game Day*. This year, for the first time, they were joined by students in USI’s Occupational Therapy (OT) Program.
The partnership began months ago when Dr. Karen Dishman, assistant professor of occupational therapy, teamed up with former EVSC colleague Jean Neidig, a physical therapist, and Chelsea Clukey, the EVSC special education coordinator. “Our idea was to help USI students create things that would make the elementary school students more independent so they could participate in the games,” Dishman says. The more students with special needs can do themselves, says Neidig, the greater the benefit.
“To realize that they made something happen, that’s a huge piece in their learning, and it’s also a huge confidence builder for them,” she explains.
Dishman’s second-year OT students spent the summer brainstorming modified versions of Game Day activities and worked together to build them during the fall semester. “We said if we could get one or two really great items, we would be thrilled,” recalls Clukey. “And Karen said, ‘Oh, we’re bringing a whole lot more.’”
After a practice run with an EVSC adaptive PE class, second-year students (who had a clinical on Game Day) handed over 10 creations—including a basketball catapult, frisbee launcher and giant matchbox car ramp—to their first-year counterparts for the real test.
“You could see the joy on their faces because everyone was able to participate. There wasn’t one station where someone had to sit out,” says Nick Coudret ’19 M’21, a first-year OT student who helped organize scooter rides for the elementary schoolers. “One girl I ended up pushing 12 or 15 times down and back because she just kept wanting to go, which was fun. As long as the kids enjoyed it, I was willing to make my legs a little sore.”
“It’s such an awesome opportunity to get to be out here and have hands-on experience with the community that we will get to work with,” adds first-year OT student Kaysie Collins ’19 M’21.
“Whenever they’re eventually looking for jobs, they’re going to be able to talk about this experience and how they created something to allow kids to participate more fully,” adds Clukey. “Giving everybody an opportunity is just overwhelming and heartwarming.”
Dishman is already looking forward to involving her students next year and hopes to increase current collaboration with USI engineering students to produce high-tech versions of the adaptive devices. “OT students can come up with a lot of creative ideas about how they would like EVSC students to participate or access the equipment, but they need that engineering mind to be able to make it happen,” she says.
Working together—on campus and in the community. Now that’s something to cheer about.
(*Though USI OT students were not able to participate, their adaptive devices were also used during a second EVSC Special Olympics Unified Champions Game Day for an additional 130 EVSC middle school students with special needs.)
Photo Credit: USI Photography and Multimedia
A USI OT student helps an EVSC student use a piece of adaptive equipment during the EVSC Special Olympics Unified Champions Game Day.