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Kittanning Y has an answer for special-needs kids

Ian Burnette, 8, laughs and claps his hands when he arrives at the YMCA every Tuesday and Thursday evening.

That's because he knows he is in for a fun and challenging session at the Y's new after-school special needs program.

Ian is autistic, has a seizure disorder and has multiple disabilities due to poor muscle tone, said his mother, Rachael Burnette. The family lives in Freeport and Ian attends the Day School at the Children's Institute in Pittsburgh.

But Burnette said she had a hard time finding any after-school programs to meet her son's needs within Armstrong County.

"There's nothing in this area for kid's to do, she said. "Ian gets bored, so when I saw the plans for the new Y, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to ask if there was anything planned for kids with special needs," said Burnette.

And that's where Joely Beeker came in.

Beeker, YMCA operations director, said the special needs program began with that first e-mail inquiry from Burnette. Beeker decided to do some research in order to build a suitable program. So she visited Hope Network's Executive Director John Sikora to learn about adaptive activities. Hope Network is a nonprofit organization located in HealthSouth Harmarville Rehabilitation Hospital. The organization offers programs that provide competitive and recreational sports opportunities for people with disabilities.

The idea was to develop a program that combined an adaptive gymnastics program for children in kindergarten through sixth grade, said Beeker. YMCA President Gary Miller said the staff plans on expanding the program to include adaptive swim sessions for the participants once the new Y is up and running. In preparation for these future plans, staff members Gabe Kacmar, Robert Law and Rebecca Carlson attended a regional adaptive swim lesson training event in Columbus, Ohio during the summer.

By the end of August, the staff were ready to begin the gymnastics portion of the after-school program. The second four-week session is under way. Twice a week, four kids, including Ian, exercise and strengthen their muscles through play. The three instructors support and encourage the children through the entire hour-long class, guiding them through a series of exercises that help improve balance, strength and focus.

Kacmar, Beeker and Burnette all agreed that there is a lot of sharing back and forth between the instructors and parents concerning each child's individual needs.

"What I really like about it is that (the instructors) encourage Ian to try, even though he might try and get out of it," said Burnette. "They keep him focused."

Kacmar said she's noticed how much Ian has improved physically during the last few weeks.

"Ian is very good with his head control and with his neck muscles," she said. "He's getting a lot more independent and is gaining strength."

Ian's mother has seen how the classes have made a difference for her son since he first started.

"We noticed his walking is getting better. He's standing straighter, he's interacting a lot more with his instructors and he's tired," said Burnette. "He's getting a nice workout."

Beeker said she'd like to see the program expand to include children who use wheelchairs. Everyone involved in the program would like the community to know about it.

"We're asking for feedback from the community about their families' needs," said Kacmar. "We're a YMCA and that means the whole community."

While Ian rolled on the mat and performed a forward tumble with a little help from the instructors, his mom applauded.

"I needed to find somewhere where Ian is comfortable, where he wouldn't feel left out," said Burnette. "My hope is that this continues to grow, But it's been amazing already."

Enrollment

• Next session begins Oct.17

• Age: K - 6th Grade

• Days: Tuesday and Thursday

• Time: 5:00 - 6:00 p.m.

• Fees: Members $20

Nonmembers $35 per session (eight classes total)

• Call 724-545-9622 for more information.

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