Merrimack Student Volunteers Help Young Athletes with Disabilities Develop Life Skills
Rachel Maliewski ’19 is a busy double major studying human development and health science with a minor in education, but somehow she also finds time to serve as president of the Special Olympics: Young Athletes Program (YAP). This student-run organization at Merrimack caters to the physical, social and emotional development of children with and without intellectual disabilities.
YAP is a sport and play program that serves more than 40 young athletes who range in age from two to eight, some of whom travel over an hour to get to campus.
The organization’s mission is to provide a fun and safe environment where children can learn and develop using age-appropriate activities and games such as running, kicking and throwing, as well as social skills such as sharing, taking turns, and following directions. A unique aspect of the program is that it also encourages siblings of athletes to participate.
Malieswski began volunteering during her freshman year and found a love for the program. “I wanted to find some way to get involved and share my passion for early education and the health field. It’s a fun way for children to get active and learn how to take care of their bodies and live a healthy active lifestyle.”
YAP has seen a surge in membership this semester with a team of nearly 70 volunteers – all of whom are trained by Maliewski and executive board members. Through their participation, volunteers enrich their academic experiences by helping to create lesson plans and developing communication skills with colleagues, parents, and children. They directly apply knowledge from the classroom to the community.
“I want children to feel pride in their accomplishments,” said Malieswski. “Someone might be great at throwing or rolling a ball and need more work with foot control or body coordination when kicking. When creating the curriculum, I am constantly thinking about what will foster each child’s abilities while strengthening and enhancing new skills and growth.”
The program consists of two six-week sessions each year (fall and spring) and a variety of fundraising events year-round including Autism Awareness Week, Spread the Word to End the Word, Rock Your Socks/World Down Syndrome Day, and a Spring Inclusion Celebration event to celebrate the athletes and bring the surrounding communities together.