Program has kids group up to learn about special needs

Jun Hwang, a 12-year-old at Monte Vista Elementary School, was a bit nervous when he arrived at Hansen Dam Recreation Area in Lake View Terrace on Thursday to spend the morning with students from College View, a Glendale school for kids with special needs.

Jun said he had never spent much time with children with disabilities before, and he was a little scared. But after Jun learned that he and his buddy-for-the-day, 11-year-old College View student Shane Proffitt, shared the same birthday month, he felt more comfortable.

Shane, Jun and Garrett Leum, an 11-year-old Monte Vista student, spent part of Thursday morning on the swing set at the Hansen Dam “universal access” playground, which is specially designed for children with disabilities. Jun and Garrett learned that Shane likes the color red and loves to swim.

“He’s having a blast,” Daniel DiMundo, a sixth-grade teacher at Monte Vista, said about Jun.

Students from Monte Vista and College View were brought together through Shane’s Inspiration, a Van Nuys-based nonprofit organization that builds playgrounds with the needs of disabled children in mind, and offers programs to support the use of those playgrounds. Shane’s Inspiration is named for Shane Alexander, the son of Catherine Curry-Williams and Scott Williams, who co-founded the nonprofit after their son died from spinal muscular atrophy only a few weeks after he was born in 1997.

The play session with students at the two schools was part of the nonprofit’s “Together, We Are Able” program, a disability-awareness initiative in which students with disabilities are paired with students without disabilities to promote interaction and understanding, said Marnie Norris Fisher, the director of programs at the nonprofit organization.

Shane’s Inspiration is working with schools in the Glendale Unified School District for the first time this year, Norris Fisher said. The organization recently received a grant from the Rose Hills Foundation that will allow Shane’s Inspiration to offer programming to schools in Glendale, Pasadena and Alhambra. Shane’s Inspiration assists the schools by providing transportation to playgrounds and doing presentations with the participating general-education students both before and after the integrated field trip, Norris Fisher said.

“Even though there’s a wonderful push for inclusion [in schools], quite often it doesn’t happen on the social level,” Norris Fisher said.

At the universal access playground at Hansen Dam, which Shane’s Inspiration helped develop, ramps allow children in wheelchairs to access everything from the sandbox to the jungle gym. Swings are modified to look like chairs so that disabled students can use them more easily, and rubberized surfacing on the ground is soft and bouncy, Norris Fisher said.

The students were split up into groups, with each participating College View student paired with two Monte Vista students. The children clambered around the playground together in their groups, climbing, trying out musical instruments and blowing bubbles.

Bringing special- and general-education students together for play helps teach the special-needs students how to play and interact appropriately with kids their age, said Mary Garripoli, who teaches kindergarten through third grade at College View.

“The more they’re exposed to general-education kids . . . that’s how they learn,” Garripoli said.

The sustained interaction with general-education students is also rare for some College View students, who don’t have frequent social contact with general-education children, Garripoli said.

“They don’t get invited to parties, our kids,” Garripoli said. “They don’t have play dates.”

And the benefits to the general-education students are just as substantial, Monte Vista Principal Susan Hoge said.

“I feel the real hidden benefit is for the non-disabled kids to get to know someone with a disability,” Hoge said.

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