My name is Emily Vasquez, Recreation Coordinator for Therapeutic Recreation Services at San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department (SFRPD). As a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS), our practice is to improve the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of individuals with illnesses and/or disabilities utilizing recreation and other activity based interventions. I work alongside a dedicated team consisting of two other CTRSs, Jennifer Wong and Jessica Huey, Recreation Leaders, and team members from other divisions within SFRPD. Currently in this pandemic, I have taken on an additional role as the Program Lead at the Eureka Valley Inclusive Community Hub (ICH), the only Community Hub in San Francisco designed to intentionally serve children with disabilities. Each child registered in our hub varies in functioning levels, communication skills, behaviors, and physical abilities. Therefore, the work that we do at Eureka Valley Recreation Center requires team members to be adaptive, flexible, empathetic, patient, dedicated, and more.
Due to the pandemic, other team members from other SFRPD divisions have been assigned to our hub, which requires on-going training, while at the same time attending to the kids’ needs. Since it is the first time for some of our staff working with kids with disabilities and working with the American Sign Language (ASL) community, we have to make sure they know the best way to support our kids in each cohort. We have a handful of great new team members, but we need more time to provide appropriate training.
Highlights at our Inclusive Community Hub happen every day! We are so fortunate to have a dedicated staff team open to learning and who show investment of our youth’s development both in our Therapeutic Recreation Cohort & American Sign Language Cohort. We have been able to safely provide socially-distanced opportunities for the separate cohorts to feel a part of the same community. We have a Staff Board located by our sign-in table for parents and kids to get to know the staff from the other cohorts. We’ve hosted Spirit Weeks and holiday celebrations to add more fun into the day to day. We’ve had the honor of hosting two city official visits to showcase how impactful our Inclusive Community Hub has been for our students.
Additionally, there are so many highlights that may be disregarded as little things. At our hub, we encourage everyone to celebrate little wins as they will lead to meeting larger goals. For instance, when we first opened, we noticed many of the students had regressed due to the pandemic. Regression looked like: low self-esteem, self-injurious behaviors, losing some ability to process/cope/communicate, high anxiety, and so much more. Something as simple as smiling or saying hi has been a huge improvement for our students. Students come in happier and more willing to come to our hub. They’re going home and communicating with their parents about how their day went. I can go on and on about highlights, but in general every day has been a highlight because we do see growth in the kids. Providing a safe space for our community — seeing all the smiles and laughter, hearing staff/kids/families share their experiences, and acknowledging the change in energy in every individual associated with our hub may be the biggest highlight every day.
Although there are so many highlights, our dedicated staff have experienced a number of tough days. Because our program operates in a recreation center, many of our kids with and without disabilities struggle with associating our environment with school. Many of our kids associate the environment and staff with play and fun; it can be difficult to distinguish differences between the two. Also, because our operating hours are 8:30am-5:30pm, this creates long days for both staff and kids. We’ve noticed an increase in “Zoom fatigue” and “Distance Learning fatigue” from kids, and as a result, our recreation programs take second priority to participant well-being and safety. Because of the long operating hours and limited full-time staff available, our part-time, as-needed staff rotate throughout the day too. With so many adults needed to safely operate our high-support Community Hub, we experience inconsistency of staff shifts, working styles, and pandemic fatigue. Additionally with supporting kids with disabilities, we often struggle with training and teaching our new team members positive behavior management techniques. Without the support on in-person school resources, many of in-person staff haven informally taken on the roles of teachers, counselors, and confidants for kids.
A Day at the Hub
The Eureka Valley Recreation Hub has two cohorts. The cohort located downstairs is our Therapeutic Recreation (TR) cohort for kids with disabilities ages 6–17. The type of disabilities include Autism, ADHD, physical disability, and developmental delay. The second cohort located upstairs is the American Sign Language (ASL) cohort serving kids who are Deaf, hard of hearing or hearing kids who have a sibling who is Deaf or hard of hearing ages 6–13. Our days start with a greeting from our staff, consistent morning routine following Covid protocols, and setting up for zoom. On a day to day basis in the TR cohort we support our students with their distance learning. Similarly to other operating hubs, our location serves students with varying schedules, teachers, and workloads. Unlike other hubs, all of our students receive various therapies throughout the week. Staff assist with classes, extracurricular classes (art, music, PE, etc.), Occupational, Physical, and Speech Therapy. There is never a dull moment as our students sometimes struggle with distance learning, inspiring some old & new challenging behaviors. As staff and students, we are constantly learning everyday on how to improve, grow and thrive during such difficult times. In between snack, lunch, and enrichment activities some kids have afternoon zoom sessions.
This community hub has been a lifeline for us. Our son was struggling, and balancing supporting his needs while working full-time would be a challenge even in the best of times. Not only that, he’s thrived. He’s doing well with his school, his social interactions, his communication skills. It’s been honestly amazing to witness his progress. We’ve felt completely secure and safe with the protocols and assistance at the hub. The staff have gone all out to give him support, navigate the countless Zoom calls, and make us feel secure as a family. I wish this was year-round, seriously. It’s been fantastic. And we’re forever grateful.
David, Therapeutic Recreation Cohort Parent
The ASL cohort operates similar to how a school immersion program is run. Everything is led in ASL. Before the pandemic, our program ran completely by staff who were Deaf or ASL fluent. Currently due to the pandemic, our staff team has shifted. Instead, we have a mix of Deaf staff, hearing staff, and a variety of ASL fluency levels. The ASL Cohort begins their day with health screening questions, washings hands, breakfast, and a community meeting where the team discusses the morning plan for the day. Throughout the morning, the ASL cohort has different schedules and built-in breaks from the school. When students are in class, they stay in the “School Zone” which acts as the student’s space and personal area for class. During breaks, students have the opportunity to independently experience the “Play Zone,” “Learning Zone” or “Quiet Zone” where students can choose a quiet non-school activity to engage in during school breaks. After the students have lunch and finish the classes for the day, our afternoon starts with our afternoon huddle. The students have an opportunity to play in our gym with scooters, bikes, balls, and as many activities as staff and kids can imagine. After the gym, our afternoons vary per day. Each day has a different theme; however, many of our enrichment activities include ASL Skill building, Active Exercises, Creative Expression, Cooking, and more. The day winds down with afternoon snack, followed by Free Choice activities such as games, art, or board games.
Providing a Sense of Home
San Francisco Recreation and Park Department’s Mission is to provide enriching recreational activities, maintain beautiful parks and preserve the environment for the well-being of everyone in our diverse community. Our team at Eureka Valley Recreation Center symbolizes this mission statement by wholeheartedly applying themselves to providing this program for this great group of kids of all abilities as well as diverse backgrounds and languages. We demonstrate this by always greeting our families with positive energy, huge smiles, and warmth when our kids get dropped off and picked up at our center. We feel the trust and open communication our parents have towards us as they express their gratitude for a hub like ours at Eureka Valley.
While both of our cohorts foster a sense of community for our families, our ASL Cohort students have become a family. Many of the youth in the program know each other from school, and have attended our program with their peers for years. Our ASL Cohort provides language access for youth. For some Deaf students, our ASL Cohort is the only ASL Space is that available to them to speak their native language outside of their classroom. In the space, the youth can be themselves and not have to adapt to the world around them; in this space, our hearing kids and staff learn to adapt to the Deaf world.
This program has helped my family a lot. When I am at work I don’t have to worry about my kids. The program helps my daughters a lot especially with learning ASL and my daughters really enjoy coming to the program.
Eiby, ASL Cohort Parent
In our TR pod each child is very different based on their functioning level. We may have a child who is independent but just needs help to open up their zoom class or have a child who needs more support. Most of our kids need 1:1 support in order for the child to attend class, stay engaged, focused, and complete tasks. While most kids are set up for zoom, you may see a staff chasing a child who has bolted out of the room because he doesn’t want to attend zoom class. Distance learning is one of his triggers and some of the behaviors he exhibits are hitting, kicking, becoming destructive, or running out of the building. Sometimes it takes up to 15 minutes to an hour to de-escalate the behavior which then results in the child missing his zoom session. Our dedicated staff experience tough situations with our kids, but emotional and physical safety becomes the priority when a child is having a behavior. Our trained staff are able to address this challenge by asking for support, holding the child gently to help calm him, speaking in a soft tone, or giving the child space to take a breather. In some cases, the child may have to take a day off from the program if it’s been a rough day or the team needs time to check in with the parents and assess how to manage the behaviors.
While other community hubs might dismiss a child from the program due to severity of behaviors or lack of trained staff, our team is dedicated and want to make it work. Our team advocates for our families because they know there are limited resources for children and families like ours. Our site becomes a safe space for the students to navigate their thoughts and emotions as we replace their challenging behaviors with coping mechanisms & a stronger sense of self-worth.
In our TR hub we plan our activities with purpose. We have to think about how we set-up our rooms for our kids during distance learning and enrichment activities. Is this area too loud? Will this activity be overstimulating? Where can we have a quiet space for child when having a behavior? Are there exits where a kid can bolt out of the building? What you will see during your walk through in our TR cohort are visuals, sensory tactile wall, emotions wall, and designated space for group and individual play.
We provide opportunities for our kids to learn social skills with their peers (i.e. turn taking, sharing, coping skills, communication, and play). Some examples of out of school time activities we facilitate to promote social interaction are parachute games, dramatic movement, physical activities, music, gym, outdoor activities, and arts. One of our newest team members is an animal assisted therapy dog named Felicia. Felicia makes our kids feel calm while our kids enjoy petting her and walking her outdoors.
In our ASL pod, the children are tech savvy and energetic! They enjoy playing games on their computers with their peers, share projects, and are excited to be in the presence of kids and staff they identify with as their in person teachers. The kids get distracted by their friends while distance learning because all they want to do is play. Often times our staff has to remind the kids to stay focused, listen to your teacher, and go back to your desk. One child needs 1:1 support as she likes to record herself on her computer during distance learning and will not engage with the teacher on screen. In some cases, she will get up from her chair to wander around the room. In one incident it took three staff to redirect her to go back and sit down for class. Her teacher commented, “It’s so great to see you in class today Aisha even though it took three staff to get you to sit down.” So our teachers are aware of the challenges our staff go through. To burn off some of the extra energy after zoom sessions, kids participate in activities such as Bingo, arts and crafts, yoga, exercise circuit, drum circle, community walks, cooking, and more! A new activity the kids started to play is school. There is a colorful carpet and dry eraser board on the wall in the ASL cohort and kids take turns playing teacher and students.
This program is very important to me. It’s allowed me to work while also helping my daughter in her development. Because of the program she can attend her school classes and allows her to engage in social circles with other youth, gets her participating in physical activities. This program is just the best for her physically and educationally.
Nancy, ASL Cohort Parent
There are so many stories from the Hub that stand out to me!
One of our TR parents shared an amazing story with us early a few months ago. During gym time, one of our tweens chose to ride bikes in the gym with his peers. One day, we mentioned to the mom that her child was riding a little too competitively in the gym. Mom asked staff if we meant scooter, and we clarified we meant bike. That evening, the mom reached out to our Recreation Specialist to send a video of the tween riding a bike. Turns out the tween didn’t know how to ride a bike before attending Eureka Valley iCH. He was a natural and just hopped on the bike!
At SFRPD we have a small team of as-needed Recreation Leaders who have been working in Therapeutic Recreation Services for a few years. Their names are Jared, Antonio, Frankie, Ben, and Patrick. These are the key players who face and manage our kids behaviors. Without their experience, patience, and hard work we couldn’t run this hub. We rely on them the most because they have experience working with kids with disabilities. Through fatigue, patience, and hard days they keep showing up. Then my colleagues Jennifer Wong and Jessica Huey who are always so supportive to our staff and families. Our ASL team Luis, Walter, Maddie, and Laurie bring in their smiles and most of all adapting to new leadership after our ASL specialist Sophea departed SFRPD to begin her new chapter with her family. We can’t forget our supervisor for Therapeutic Recreation and Inclusion Services Lucas Tobin. He knows the hard work we do and will bring in ice cream, cookies, and breakfast for our team to keep our spirits up! What has resonated with me the most about our TR team is to not give up on our families. I don’t know how we fit all these huge hearts at Eureka Valley Recreation Center.
We also have new team members from other divisions from Cultural Arts, Community Services, Leisure, Aquatics, Volunteer Services and their names are Bernie, Brenda, Rich, Ali, Syd, Charlie, Mary, Colleen, Lisa, Mike and his animal assisted therapy dog Felicia, Adela, Chris, and supervisor at Eureka Valley Danny Ogawa. There are many stories to share about our new team members, but one story is from Bernie from Cultural Arts who doesn’t have experience working with kids with disabilities. Bernie expressed happiness when one of our youth Jinyou gave her eye contact and completed a full sentence when communicating with her. Our staff sit with Jinyou during her speech therapy sessions so it’s a joy staff get to experience the progress Jinyou has made. Also, we have Brenda from Volunteer Services who started with us downstairs in the TR cohort and now got moved upstairs to work with the ASL cohort due to her leadership and dedication to our families. Adela is the Facilities Coordinator at Eureka Valley Recreation Center and has been so welcoming to our kids. She helps the ASL cohort and does her best to learn some ASL so she can communicate with the kids and staff. What has resonated with me about these experiences, is anyone can work with a child with a disability or a child who is Deaf if they open their minds to it, take the time to get to know the child, and learn something new in our diverse community.
In order for our staff to enter the building and process their health screening they have to press the doorbell. One kid heard the doorbell, stood up and left story time group, and yelled out the staff name, “Ben!” He ran to the door with excitement and greeted the staff member being health-screened. This was such a sweet surprise to witness and shows how committed our staff are in building relationships with our kids.
This hub has been a true blessing for our entire family during this time. The staff is knowledgeable and professional, but mostly fun! Thank you SFRPD for coming through in such a tough time.
Lisa, TR Cohort Parent
San Francisco is still a great place to grow up, but it could be better. There needs to be more organizations like us who serve our families who have kids with disabilities and the ASL community. Community organizations should partner with each other, collaborate on what is working for this demographic in a community setting, and hire qualified staff. We are a small team and are passionate about our work at SFRPD, but if other organizations worked together we could serve more families.
Families with children with disabilities are appreciative for the services at SFRPD, but they continue to express the need for more services such that are offered by SF Therapeutic Recreation Services. In order to address these families’ on-going requests, the City needs to allocate on-going funds that support such programs (i.e. hire staff that have the academic degrees or experience working with kids with disabilities).
Emily, what song motivates you to continue to serve our communities as we struggle and grind through the pandemic?
Marc Anthony, “Vivir Mi Vida”!