Katz JCC hosts Olympic event for special needs athletes

PALS week-long summer camp opens pathways to socialization and fun.

PALS (Peers Using AAC for Language and Socialization) holds its ninth annual summer program at Katz JCC during the week of Aug. 16, with an Olympic theme, a nod to the Tokyo games and the upcoming Paralympic Games. Here, camper Shane celebrates a goal with one of his aides as well as speech pathologist Ann Simon. Find more photos from the camp inside the Aug. 25 edition of the Sun.

The summer Olympics from Tokyo had come and gone, its 16 days of glory a part of collective memory. The Paralympic Games were just about to begin, and Katz JCC filled that gap with a week-long series of events that evoked the spirit of competition.

Beginning on Aug. 16 and slated to end four days later, the organization, in collaboration with Peers Using AAC for Language and Socialization (PALS), held its ninth annual summer program with a direct nod to the Olympic spirit. 

Tasked with competing in a variety of games and activities were young men and women from 16 to 28 years old who require the assistance of an augmentative communication device. 

PALS was established in 2012, to promote socialization among peers in children who are multiply disabled and require aides to express themselves.

“The impetus for this program is my daughter, Sydney, who is now going to be 25,” said Donna Forman, PALS co-founder. “We started because it felt like, within our own community, there wasn’t really a program that met the needs for her.“

Forman wanted to create an environment where similarly-abled kids, teens and adults are safe in a structured way, where they could still have a positive experience without having to be outdoors for long hours at a time, and where people are well trained to work with them. 

One of these socialization efforts grew into the week-long camp. Every year, PALS comes up with a different theme that is entertaining and engaging. 

“In the past we did Disney, and one year we did an animal theme. One year, we did a superhero theme,” Forman noted. “This year, it just seemed appropriate to do the Olympics.” 

No matter how it’s accomplished, fun is easily translatable. 

As a prelude to the opening ceremony and competition, campers created their own team names and colorful poster boards for each. They were led by Miss Ann — certified speech pathologist Ann Simon — in a short soccer and cheerleading clinic, where each participant got to touch, throw or even kick the ball into an old laundry basket modified like a goal. 

Enter Amber Case, an adaptive physical education teacher, who helped Forman and PALS modify each of the different activities so participants could maximize their enjoyment. 

“I’m trying to have the students move as much as possible and have fun and work together,” Case noted. “It’s perfect that it’s the summer and the kids love it, especially with the torch relay and the flags.”

After opening ceremonies that included a participant parade and torch passing, the games officially began with a soccer game reminiscent of a kickball and bowling hybrid. Throughout the week, campers were to play baseball and basketball, then take part in a modified track-and-field event. 

By far the most powerful boots on the first day were campers Shane and Darcie, who had no issues when directed where to aim their shots. Each camper participated with at least one aide, if not multiple helpers. If no extra help is forthcoming, PALS does its best to pair campers with   its own aides and tries to match based on specific needs.

To Forman, the more the merrier — if it allows their charges to have the best possible experience. 

“Some of them come with their own aides, some are the ones that are medically involved and some are there for more specific needs,” she explained. “If parents choose to send their own, we welcome it, because it’s another person that knows the participant and gives that extra assistance.” 

An enthusiastic tone set on the first day would carry through for the rest of the week, according to Case, who also instructed campers how to flex their arms by drumming with pool noodles at the end of the day.  

“Tomorrow’s going to be basketball, and we’re going to be playing a game called ‘bucket blitz,’” she said. “We’re going to be aiming to work on our throws.”

Closing ceremonies were scheduled for Aug. 20, with awards given to participants. 

For more information on PALS, contact Forman by phone at (856) 472-9396. To learn more about Katz, visit katzjcc.org.