Spotlight: Elaine McHugh & Saturday Sidekicks

“Saturday Sidekicks definitely increased my desire to work with kids with disabilities. When I first signed up for the program, I was very nervous that I was not going to be able to communicate effectively with the kids. I think many people just see the children for their disabilities, and not as kids. Getting involved really makes you see that these kids are like any other children; they just want to have fun and play.”
– Emily Giorgi

The Saturday Sidekicks service-learning program works with children with disabilities to give them the skills they need to be comfortable in an athletic setting with a wide range of fun activities and a focus on teaching them how to ride bicycles, swim, and dance — all activities popular with youth their age and in family settings. The Saturday Sidekicks program attracts SSU kinesiology majors as well as students from many departments such as psychology and philosophy.

Being introduced to a new social situation can be unsettling for college students at first, founder and director Kinesiology Department Chair Dr. Elaine McHugh explains, “When the volunteers first came they were really nervous because they didn’t know how to work with a child with disabilities or they had never met a child with disabilities. They were really nervous on how to interact with the kids and if they kids would like them. What I found is after one or two sessions is they’d say ‘oh they are just like other kids.’” That was her goal; “to change the [students'] comfort level with children with disabilities and to teach them tolerance and understanding.”

Kinesiology student, Emily Giorgi, and Analyssa Munoz

One kinesiology student, Emily Giorgi, described her experience, “I was really nervous, I came in wanting all the kids to like me. As time went on though I got more comfortable and began to form friendships; it sounds corny but we really are one big family.” She went on to describe her experience and how it played into her academics. “Saturday Sidekicks helped me as a Kinesiology major because I was able to get a better understanding of what occupational therapists and adapted PE teachers do on a daily basis. The experience definitely made me reconsider what it is that I truly want to do in the field of Kinesiology. I think that anyone who volunteers will get a different outlook on things than they had prior to getting involved, and it will change them for the better.”

However, the program doesn’t simply benefit SSU student volunteers. According to McHugh, Saturday Sidekicks is very important to disabled children. “A lot of children with disabilities are less active. Many people want to call it an ‘obesity epidemic,’ I prefer the term ‘inactivity epidemic.’”

Nina Cragg, a volunteer from the CATS program and Zuriel Santiago, the sibling of a Sat Sidekicks participant.

Nina Cragg, a volunteer from the CATS program and Zuriel Santiago, the sibling of a Sat Sidekicks participant.

Nina Cragg, a volunteer from the CATS program and Zuriel Santiago, the sibling of a Sat Sidekicks participant.
Michele Reckmeyer, mother to a participant in the program, says she has noticed improvement in her daughter’s enthusiasm when participating in physical activities. “She absolutely loves it every week they have something different, she loves that variety, it makes it fun for her,” says Reckmeyer.

Another mother, Judy Spolini, whose son Scott has been with the program for years said, “I’ve definitely seen an improvement in his confidence and muscle coordination. I’m constantly worried about him getting enough physical activity. Over the years I’ve noticed he’s been able to play for a lot longer — he’s not as worn out by the end of the day.”

It seems to be that friendship has been the takeaway that most volunteers, parents, and children alike have claimed to have gotten out of this amazing program.

“Saturday Sidekicks gave me a lot of respect for children with disabilities. Many of them go through a lot of doctors appointments and deal with bullying, but they are still smiley upbeat people. It’s truly inspiring.” Annelise Dohrer, SSU Junior

McHugh started the program in 1996 not only because she enjoyed working with children, but also because she wanted to have a place where SSU students could have a hands on experience in a convenient location. McHugh believes the success of the program was simply in its creation “Build it and they will come. I have never had to advertise, it has all been word of mouth.” The same, she says, goes for volunteers, “I pretty much always have plenty of volunteers to help out, it’s great.”

For more information on the program or how you can get involved with Saturday Sidekicks service-learning project contact Elaine McHugh at elaine.mchugh@sonoma.edu or click here.

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