BY ROSIE PIGA PIZZO
On its website, the Bloomington Parks and Recreation Department notes its commitment to inclusive recreation — where individuals with disabilities participate in regular recreational activities. Amy Shrake has been the inclusive recreation coordinator for Parks and Rec for 12 years, and in that time she’s seen how one inclusion service, the Leisure Companion Program, has changed lives.
The Leisure Companion Program is a service in which participants with disabilities are partnered with volunteer companions who provide additional support during inclusive activities. The level of support varies according to the specific needs of each individual. The individuals with disabilities are mostly children and teens.
“I don’t know how many times it’s happened that we’ve paired an individual with a Leisure Companion, and that individual can eventually do the activity independently,” Shrake says.
Shrake recalls a young person who requested a Leisure Companion for the hockey initiation program. “He ended up participating independently and then he did the same with sailing,” she says. “And this past summer, he was a counselor-in-training. He’s come a long way.”
Shrake notes that recreational activities have generally become more inclusive in the 15 years the program has been in existence. “Inclusion is happening earlier and earlier so the need isn’t as great, but it’s a valuable program that we need,” she says.
Nearly all of the volunteers are Indiana University students in the recreational therapy program. “We have way more volunteers than participants,” Shrake says.
Leisure Companions attend a volunteer orientation and complete a background check. When a request is made for a Leisure Companion, a plan is written for the participant. “The training is very specific to the individual,” Shrake says.
Summer is the busiest time, with Leisure Companions frequently requested to help with camps and swim lessons, but anyone participating in any paid program offered through Parks and Rec can utilize the Leisure Companion Program. Participants simply check a box when they register.
“With every partner we’ve had, it’s always been a success,” Shrake says. “It helps to have IU here and have a wealth of volunteers. It’s a good way of providing support to those individuals who need it.”
For more information, visit bloomington.in.gov/inclusive.