Local Living Local Coeur d’Alene It’s All About the Fun: Special Needs Recreation provides opportunities for youth and adults with disabilities

All About the Fun

By Jillian Dan Thompson | Article Provided by Coeur d’Alene Living Local

Adam Kenney loves sports.

He loves to surf and snowboard and is a big fan of basketball and hockey. At a mid-week Spokane Chiefs game in January, he cheered often, and he cheered loud.

“I’m the expert,” Kenney said with a laugh.

Kenney was there with about 10 other adults for an evening outing through Specialized Needs Recreation, an organization in North Idaho that provides recreational opportunities for youth and adults who have developmental and physical disabilities.

Kenney kept an eye out for Boomer, the Chiefs’ mascot, making his rounds in the Spokane Arena, and finally spotted him.

“Boomer!” he shouted. “I love you so much!”

Kenney was one of just two there with the group who had seen a hockey game before.

Mark Pennestri, from Post Falls, was the other. He donned a Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt, admitting that he had watched with disappointment as the Cowboys defeated his beloved Seattle Seahawks a week earlier in the NFL playoffs.

But for now, he said, he could be a Cowboys fan, too.

In addition to outings like this one, SNR hosts events throughout the week, mostly for adults, in the Coeur d’Alene area.

“Our mission is to provide recreational activities for kids and adults with special needs. There’s a need for adults especially,” said Jen Fullerton, who has been the executive director at SNR since last spring. “There are a lot of therapy-based or behavioral-based programs in the community right now, but not a lot of just fun and time to get together and have social interaction for these guys. We’re trying to fill in a need.”

And so there they were, cheering every goal, hit and big play for the Chiefs in a relatively empty Spokane Arena, raptly attentive to the game below.

Pennestri, who works two days at a week at McDonald’s, also attends SNR’s Tuesday events quite regularly.

“It’s about the fun,” he said.

The evening outings aren’t all the organization does. SNR LIFE (Learning, Inspiring, Friends & Fun, Educational) meets on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 10am to 2pm and helps participants work on life skills, social interactions, crafts, cooking and all sorts of outings and volunteer opportunities.

“It’s always entertaining to hang out with them,” Fullerton said. “We went to Altitude (Trampoline Park) at the end of December, and that was an absolute blast. One of the things I love about going to these places in the community is seeing how the employees treat us, and they’re amazing. They love our group. I told them that their employees make all the difference.”

The group has made pottery, visited an animal shelter, sledded on Cherry Hill and attended movies. Also, every Thursday the group shares every step of a family style meal, from the preparation and shopping to the eating and cleanup.

The program started in the 1980s as part of the Recreation Department in the City of Coeur d’Alene. Steve Anthony, then the Recreation director and now a member of the Post Falls City Council, said it was born out of a clear need in the community.

There were plenty of opportunities for kids and adults who did not have special needs: baseball, gymnastics any a myriad of other sports and activities.

But for those who did have special needs, there just wasn’t much opportunity for recreation, Anthony said.

“I met with a lot of parents, and they needed a break sometimes so they could focus on their other children and their family life,” he said. “The parents worked hard. They went out and got grants. It became a real community effort.”

And so the program grew, cobbling together funding from various sources and encompassing Post Falls, Coeur d’Alene, Rathdrum and Hayden, all of which support SNR financially through their recreation departments. Fullerton estimated about 700 people participate with the group in some way.

Now, in addition to its weekly events, SNR offers a series of larger, annual ones: Prom Night, a Christmas party and a talent show, which will be held on March 16 at the Harding Family Center.

Kenney said he was planning a song from “The Greatest Showman.” John McConnell, also in attendance at the game and a regular in the talent show, planned to sing Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life.”

The group started weekly rehearsals for the talent show in January.

“It’s one of their most favorite events,” Fullerton said. “We’ve been getting calls for months.”

For many participants, the talent show and the prom help allow them to do something that they didn’t when in high school.

“You had 30-year-olds who had never been to a prom,” Anthony said.

The high schools are aware of and connected to SNR as well. Some events are attended by high school students and their families, and as students graduate it is a natural transition to participate in SNR events.

“SNR has been a great place for my students to go and have a social life outside of high school,” said Amy Marlow, Life Skills teacher at Coeur d’Alene High School. “They provide them with opportunities they wouldn’t necessarily have.”

One of those is the dances SNR hosts, which are much better suited for her students than high school dances are, Marlow said. Many high schoolers volunteer at SNR events as well.

SNR’s relationships with the high schools are something Fullerton wants to continue to grow. It has been a hectic year for the organization with an entirely new staff of three full-time employees, all hired on in the past year.

Amid all that, Fullerton has focused most on keeping the program going, forging new business partnerships for their LIFE outings and fostering relationships with participants and their families.

“We’ve all made connections with these participants,” she said. “As much as there’ve been changes I think they’ve adjusted quite well to all of them.”

She would like to continue to build partnerships and to spread awareness about SNR’s events, to grow their list of volunteers and to get a bigger (or another) van for transporting participants on outings.

These events are made possible through donations from various sources. Most notably SNR holds a fundraiser in April, and the families affiliated with the program do a lot to help raise money as well, Fullerton said.

That’s because grants for programs like this, she said, are largely available for youth programs but not for adult programs.

But the community has consistently supported the programs for three decades, and she doesn’t see that changing. Not when the value is so great for the participants.

“Some have been coming since they were kids,” she said. “The kids that came 20, 30 years ago are now adults, and they’ve known each other half their lives.”