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Volunteer work inspires career path and work with developmentally disabled individuals

Dec 8, 2022

Stephanie Wingo using special training to build recreational therapy program at St. Coletta's of Illinois

When Stephanie Wingo signed up to be a Special Olympics volunteer in middle school, little did she know this would inspire her career path.

“I’ve always had a passion for helping others,” she said, and the experience of working with the Special Olympians with intellectual disabilities stuck with her.

Even while pursuing a nursing degree at Middle Tennessee State University in the early 2000s, Wingo felt the pull to help those with disabilities.

The pull became undeniable after Wingo joined a recreation sports league and met several special education teachers.

Their conversations convinced her to follow her heart and switch degrees. She graduated from Middle Tennessee State University with a bachelor’s degree in community and public health, followed by a master’s degree in therapeutic recreation from University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

From there, Wingo took her training a step further by taking a national exam to become a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist – the highest level of certification within recreational therapy. 

It was during the certification process that Wingo learned about St. Coletta’s of Illinois and its desire to start a recreational therapy program for 180 adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The timing couldn’t be more perfect. St. Coletta’s recently had received a $10,000 grant contribution from the Anna May “Babe” Ahern Foundation to build its recreational therapy program and Wingo was eager to put her new certification to work.

Especially appealing was the challenge of building a program from the ground up.

“I wanted to help build a program that never existed,” said Wingo.

In recreational therapy, therapists use activities, such as sports, arts and crafts, dance and music, to improve the well-being of individuals with disabilities. They work with participants to reduce depression, stress and anxiety while helping them build confidence and socialize in their community.

At St. Coletta’s, Wingo accomplishes the goal by focusing on five core areas:

·         Arts and culture

·         Recreation and leisure

·         Life Skills

·         Social Skills and community integration

·         Fitness and exercise

Twice a day Monday through Friday, Wingo offers a variety of activities for adults in St. Coletta’s Community Day Services Program, tailoring each one to individual interests, skill levels and personal goals.

One day, they may work on cardiovascular health by exercising to a Richard Simmons video. Another day they may work on cognitive skills by creating one-of-a-kind artwork with paint or following printed instructions on how to make an origami bird. A third day, they may develop their social skills by playing a game show, such as Jeopardy or Family Feud.

“It’s like therapy in disguise,” said Wingo. “We work on their social skills, color recognition, number recognition and cooperative play. They don’t see (it as therapy), but we know.”

More common in hospitals and skilled nursing facilities, recreational therapy enhances physical, cognitive, emotional, social and leisure development so individuals may participate fully and independently in chosen life pursuits.

It is a highly individualized form of therapy, incorporating each client’s interests while weaving the concept of healthy living into treatment to ensure improved functioning. The goal is to enhance independence and successful involvement in all aspects of life.

“I love the fact that I can help them overcome (their disabilities),” said Wingo. “Anything they want to do together, I can make it happen by adapting it.”

If a participant wants to learn how to crochet, for example, Wingo figures out a way to make it work.

“You can’t change the disability,” she said, “but you can help them adapt.”

Based in Tinley Park, St. Coletta’s of Illinois provides educational and vocational training services to more than 300 children and adults with developmental disabilities.

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