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The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Helping hands: Volunteers and children with disabilities benefit from sports program

By Elizabeth Hales

Volunteers are needed to assist children with disabilities in a specialized exercise program developed by U faculty. Hester Henderson, associate professor of exercise and sport science, recognized the need for a physical-fitness program designed especially for children with special needs in 1999.

“My goal was to develop a program for kids with physical disabilities who don’t have other activities to go to,” she said.

Henderson and several graduate students created UFIT the following year with the support of the School of Medicine and other university departments.

UFIT meets Friday nights in different areas of the HPER complex from 6 to 8 p.m. Approximately 50 children from ages 3 to 15 attend and about 75 volunteers, most of them students, assist them, Henderson said.

Each night of UFIT is devoted to one specific activity, whether it is volleyball, basketball, tennis or even rhythm and dance. They also have added an art program this year.

The kids spend one hour on an activity and the other half of the night at the pool, which is usually their favorite activity, said Heidi Schmauch, one of this year’s program directors and a graduate student in special physical education.

Holding it on Friday nights allows parents to either spend some time alone or network with other parents who have children with physical disabilities.

For children, it is a chance to have fun with friends while they learn new skills, Schmauch said.

Nearly six years after its inception, UFIT continues to receive government funding and volunteer support. The volunteers work one-on-one with kids and help involve them in the activities in the hopes that the kids will have a fun experience.

“These children just love their volunteers,” Schmauch said. “You can’t beat the feeling of being loved by your child.”

The program is specialized for children with autism or Down syndrome to develop motor and fitness skills in aquatics or art. It also gives them the opportunity to have fun and develop new friendships, she said.

It puts them in an environment with other kids who are similar to them, and they can have fun and feel comfortable around each other, Schmauch said.

The program is always looking for more volunteers because the more it has, the greater the number of children who can participate, Henderson said.

The volunteers also learn about people.

“It improves your attitude towards people with disabilities,” Henderson said.

As a volunteer, Schmauch said she has had rewarding experiences.

“I think the most important lesson is that you, as a volunteer, have the power to make a difference in the life of a child.”

Henderson said that they are always trying to reach more parents of children with disabilities and let them know about the program and its benefits to the children who participate in it. For the upcoming Spring Semester, Henderson, with the aid of some of her students, will be conducting a workshop for parents. The students will prepare presentations to tell parents about different activities for their children.

For more information, or to volunteer, students should contact the exercise and sports science department.

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