Norwich phys ed class brings
Special Olympics program to campus © Feb. 26, 2010, Norwich University Office of Communications

Third-year physical education major Adam Flores encourages Wyatt, a participant in the Special Olympics' Young Athletes program, to catch a floating scarf on his head.

photo by Jay EricsonThird-year PE major Adam Flores encourages Wyatt, a participant in the Special Olympics’ Young Athletes program, to catch a green floating scarf on his head.

Seven-year-old Sonja was fascinated by the yellow LiveStrong bracelet on Rocco DiMeco’s wrist.

By the end of the first gathering of the Young Athletes program at Norwich University, DiMeco, a third-year physical education major, had given it to her.

“The bracelet was my in; my first connection,” said DiMeco. “She was shy at first, but by the end of that first day she had put so much trust in me. It was amazing.”

Sonja had arrived in the brightly lit Andrews Hall gymnasium with three other children to be part of a service-learning project organized by Prof. Susan Yesalonia in cooperation with Special Olympics Vermont, the local chapter of a global advocacy program for children with intellectual disabilities. Children, ages 2 to 7, work on skills before they are eligible to compete as 8-year-olds in regional events. Young Athletes lasts for 10 weeks, and the February 2010 class represents the first time it has been offered in Central Vermont, home to Norwich’s Northfield campus.

When I hear my students say that ‘This is the best thing that has happened to me all week,’ that makes a difference.

~ Sue Yesalonia,
assistant professor of
physical education

Yesalonia, assistant professor of physical education, started things off in a circle with students, parents and the expectant faces of children watching.

“We are proud to be able to offer this program,” she said. “The goal is for us to work with the kids’ motor skills and help them learn more advanced skills.”

Yesalonia’s class of 13 physical education students in her Aging and Disabilities class quickly engaged the children, whose ages and physical capabilities varied. Some were nonverbal, autistic or listed severe attention deficit disorder as challenges. All needed work on fine motor skill development and socialization.

Activities abounded with basic skills—marching, frog-leaping, balancing, rolling a ball between cones—all designed to assess where the children were on the first week.

A favorite activity of the day involved neon scarves. Bright squares were thrown into the air and the children attempted to position their heads under the fabric as it floated down.

On the sidelines, Sonja’s grandmother and primary caregiver, Vivian, watched thoughtfully as Sonja specified which color scarf she wanted—pink. The activity seemed to calm Vivian’s apprehension. “All of the students are doing a great job,” she said.

A few days later, Yesalonia debriefed students on the first session. To the simple question, “how did it go?” students responded that it was fun, a supportive atmosphere and they were able to teach at their own pace.

The class reviewed the goals of the program: to keep the kids involved with activities and to learn socialization skills. Each week, the class will spend time discussing and planning the next program.

The Aging and Disabilities class is required for teacher licensure at Norwich, the country’s oldest private military college. Running the Special Olympics program was intended to help students hone teaching skills, as well as contribute to the community. DiMeco, originally from Worcester, Mass., came to Norwich to be a physical education major without realizing how many hands-on experiences there would be.

“The opportunities give us another outlook,” said DiMeco. “It makes us a better person and well rounded.”

The second week as children bounded into the gym, Sonja headed straight for DiMeco for a hug as if greeting an old friend.

Vivian said Sonja talked about the program and DiMeco all week. “She really bonded with him. I am glad he has the patience to work with her.”

New activities were organized and students took turn leading. Beach balls, bats, soccer balls and the Hokey Pokey dominated the hour.

Sonja enjoyed attention from DiMeco and the other students. More importantly, her grandmother noted, was her ability to focus. “Normally, Sonja would never be able to concentrate when so much is going on,” said Vivian. “She’d be too distracted.”

Another mother said she hadn’t been sure what to think about putting her child under the guidance of college students, but they had exceeded her expectations. Her autistic son loved it so far.

Yesalonia, who will present her work on service-learning, including the Young Athletes program, at the Eastern District Association of the American Alliance of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance conference, admitted she was nervous about how students would react. “I wanted to make sure they were ready,” she said. “But they are responding to the young kids.”

The program’s second session ended with the entire group playing with a parachute. As the vivid multi-colored cloth swooped into the air and over the kids, giggles burst from underneath.

“When I hear my students say that ‘This is the best thing that has happened to me all week,’ that makes a difference,” said Yesalonia.