STURGEON BAY (NBC 26) — At the Door County YMCA in Sturgeon Bay, children with cognitive, sensory and physical disabilities are swinging bats, building, climbing and much more. For one hour a week after school, children with Down syndrome or on the autism spectrum are paired with high school volunteers to play up to 25 different adaptive games.
"Maybe they have some sensory needs or maybe they need to work on some fine motor control, and we have stations that improve all of those things," said Adam Peronto.
Peronto is an exercise physiologist who leads Door County Medical Center's Ride4Kids program. RIDE is an acronym.
"It stands for Recreation for Individuals with Disabilities through Exercise," he explained.
The program goes beyond improving motor skills and movement. Peronto said it promotes inclusion.
"I made a friend today," said 9-year-old Alaina Kirby.
"They're getting out into a community center and finding ways to communicate with others. They're learning new skills and making new friends along the way," said Peronto.
11-year-old Mia Olson enjoys the instruction, encouragement and social interaction.
"Me and Hailey like to play balls," she explained. "It makes me super happy."
Hailey DeGrave added, "I hope that I provide for the children some sort of learning experience on how to let go and just have fun and relax."
DeGrave is one of the high school volunteers for Ride4Kids. She believes the program also helps to reduce the stigma associated with those who have differing abilities.
"There's no single difference between these kids and the people I see at school everyday. I have the same amount of fun with them as I do with my friends outside of school, and I just love being around them more than anything."
In just one year, the program has grown from 14 participants to 52. Peronto said the success is largely due to community support, such as an $8,000 donation from the 2019 Leadership Door County class.
"Without that equipment, we wouldn't be able to make the strides that we've made. So, all their fundraising efforts have really gone a long way to build this program and solidify it as something that we can offer long into the future."
It's a program that's also shaping the futures of some of the volunteers.
"I'm actually considering being a special education teacher in the future," said DeGrave.
She urges anyone considering volunteering to give it a try, because seeing the children leave the Y with a smile on their face and joy in their heart makes it all worthwhile.
Ride4Kids serves seven school districts. The program is offered every fall and spring. The sessions are eight weeks long and are free of charge.
For more information, email Adam Peronto at firstname.lastname@example.org.