New SLCC ‘SKIP’ program offers free recreational opportunities for children with disabilitiesNov 30, 2023 01:24PM ● By Carl Fauver
Kids with special needs have been spending their Wednesday evenings this fall learning skills and burning off energy at SLCC’s new SKIP program. (Courtesy SLCC)
A lot of us do everything we can to avoid that wicked traffic window from 4 to 6 p.m. on weekdays along the Wasatch Front. But not James Walamau Jr. At least not one day a week this fall.
For six consecutive Wednesday evenings (Oct. 18 to Nov. 22) James II navigated those congested roads with his son, James III, age 11, to make their way from North Salt Lake to Salt Lake Community College’s Lifetime Activity Center in Taylorsville.
James III is on the autism spectrum. He attends Spectrum Academy, a North Salt Lake charter school designed for students with his kind of challenges. Through his son’s school, James II learned about the new, free exercise and recreation program at SLCC.
“It has been awesome for my son,” Walamau said. “On the first day, he was skeptical about it. But after that, he’s been excited to go every Wednesday. It’s definitely been worth the drive down to the Redwood campus. It has built so much confidence in him. James can’t wait for the program to start up again next spring.”
Salt Lake Community College calls the new program James and James are so excited about “SKIP” – SLCC Kids in Play. It’s the brainchild of the college’s Exercise Science Department Associate Professor Paul Roberts, who’s taught at the Taylorsville school 25 years.
Roberts is on medical leave from SLCC this semester. But in his absence, he’s been proud to receive updates about how SKIP has served kids in this pilot year.
“Other schools, like the U of U, have programs similar to SKIP and I thought it was something our community also needed,” Roberts said. “I had to write a couple of grant requests to get it going. SLCC student volunteers deserve a lot of the credit. They come every week to work 1-on-1 with the kids.”
So far, SKIP has been open to kids in grades 4 to 6, ages 9 to 13. But the college already has plans to expand it to more grades as the program becomes more well-known.
“We’ve averaged about 15 kids and 15 student volunteers each week this fall,” Roberts added. “But we have the room and equipment to grow that to 50 kids. We are committed to operating SKIP for years to come. Our spring semester session will run eight weeks.”
The free program is open to children with a wide variety of physical, mental or emotional challenges. There are no financial need requirements and they can live anywhere throughout northern Utah. Sign-up details are available at slcc.edu/skip.
Roberts understands the disability world much more intimately than he would like.
“At age 19, I was out being stupid with friends in a car,” he explained. “I was paralyzed in a car accident and required lots of physical therapy. I was a Utah State student at the time but transferred down to the U of U to be closer to the therapy I needed. I earned my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the U. I am now 57 years old – and still in my wheelchair.”
Roberts earned his master’s degree in Exercise Science. He says being in a wheelchair helps connect him to the kids he works with.
“I am at their level (physically, literally),” Roberts said. “Even if they are only in fourth grade, they can relate to me as a person with a disability. I recently ran into a former student who instantly recognized me and came up. I had not seen him in 20+ years. It is rewarding.”
With Roberts sidelined this fall, coordination of the SLCC SKIP program has fallen to Austen Keithley, who’s working with the Taylorsville college parttime. Her full-time job has her traveling from school to school each week throughout the Weber School District offering adapted PE.
“I’ve been with the Weber District 10 years and doing adapted PE seven years,” Keithley said. “There are two of us doing it. We each visit about ten schools a week and each work with a couple of hundred special need students.”
Students in the SLCC SKIP program, referred to as “cubs,” have intellectual or health disabilities and other motor impairments or are on the autism spectrum. None of this fall’s participants were in wheelchairs.
The mostly-SLCC Exercise Sports Science student volunteers are called “rangers.”
“Each of the Wednesday sessions began with our rangers working 1-on-1 with their cubs,” Keithley explained. “They focus on many different skills like throwing and catching basketballs and footballs. The kids play tagging games – and keep balls bouncing on a large parachute. After the rangers get their cubs warmed up and emotionally ready, we shift them into group activities.”
Each SKIP session runs 90 minutes. James Walamau Jr. wishes it was a half hour longer. After all, it’s a long, traffic-snarled drive from North Salt Lake for an hour-and-a-half. But he says James III also loves the way each session ends.
“The final 20 minutes are so fun, James and the other kids do arts and crafts,” Walamau said. “It’s great because they run around using a lot of energy; but then they calm down, painting, drawing or gluing things onto paper. One night the kids painted pumpkins. James has taken something home with him every week.”
Walamau also has high praise for his son’s “ranger,” Ciceley Brental. James III knows her as “CC.”
“She is so patient and awesome with my son,” Walamau concluded. “The rangers boost their cub’s confidence. CC is constantly telling James ‘You are doing great.’ She has helped him to socialize better. It’s a great program and James can’t wait for it to start up again.”
The $5,000 grant the SLCC SKIP program received from the New York-based Theresa Foundation (theresafoundation.org) has not yet been spent, as Roberts and Keithley continue to assess what new equipment they might purchase with it. They are also still not yet sure when the program will resume after the holidays. But they are hopeful many more special needs students will learn about SKIP and join them.
As for James II and James III – their deal-with-the-traffic game faces will be back on again, whenever that next SKIP session rolls around. λ