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Program targets development of social skills

Young people with developmental disabilities don't have a lot of opportunities to socialize, so one local agency has been running a recreation program to get them out and about two or three times a month to have fun and learn to relate to others.

James Matteson, the recreation manager for Opportunities Unlimited of Niagara, said the program is geared to youth ages 12 to 19 who have cerebral palsy, epilepsy, autism, mental retardation, neurological impairments or have suffered traumatic brain injury.

"We do a variety of activities to expose them to different situations so they can learn how to interact appropriately with other people, control their emotions, grow as individuals through participation in social activities, make some friends and have fun," he said. It also gives family members who take care of these individuals a break, he said.

Some of those involved in the program have gone to a Buffalo Bisons baseball game or to movies at the Regal Theater, to the Peach Festival in Lewiston and Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ont.

"We take them out to eat," Matteson said. "We've taken them to African Lion Safari in Hamilton. We've gone go-cart racing. . . . We plan to take them to Fantasy Island next year. We have three dances a year: a Halloween costume party, a winter hoedown in January and a spring fling. We have three game nights a year at our Lockport facility."

Last weekend, Matteson and two of the program participants went to the University at Buffalo Bulls football game on the North Campus.

The human services agency started the program 2 1/2 years ago to fill a need for teenagers who may spend most of their time at home with family and don't have the chance to participate in a lot of social activities and develop like most children their age.

Roxane C. Albond-Buchner, the agency's communications manager, said, "It helps them to mature, develop as a person and become more self-confident, more independent. . . . It lets them go out, have fun and experience life in a safe, supervised situation . . . doing the same things other teenagers take for granted."

The youths love the program.

"We had one a 12-year-old Down syndrome girl from Lockport come to the program and she had a wonderful time," Albond-Buchner said.

Cindy Hyde said her 15-year-old daughter, Jennifer Martin, has been in the program since she was 12.

"She's mentally retarded with severe speech delay," Hyde said. "We wanted her in the program because she lacked social skills. She gets very nervous around other people, so I wanted to integrate her into something like this. She likes it, and she's done well. When she gets off the bus and comes home, she has a big smile on her face. That's the best part. I know she's had a good time. The first dance she went to, I was pacing. But when she came home, she said she had fun and smiled."

At a special game night earlier this month at the Lockport facility, Jonathan Kneer and Michael Hart said they had a lot of fun playing games such as table hockey. They said they take advantage of a lot of the agency's programs for their age group, and that the recreation program is a great way for them to get out of their homes and socialize.

Albond-Buchner said anyone from Niagara and Orleans counties or the neighboring communities of Tonawanda, Grand Island and West Amherst can be signed up for the program as long as they qualify as being developmentally disabled.

Parents with children who can benefit are asked to call 504-2617.

"Tell us you want to sign up for the youth recreation program, and we'll walk you through it," Albond-Buchner said. "You can sign up at any time."

Matteson said transportation is not a problem.

"We do all the transportation [free of charge]. We pick the kids up at their homes and bring them back after," he said.

The only cost involved for a family is for the actual cost of a specific event, which varies depending on where the group is going.

Albond-Buchner said 17 teenagers are participating in the youth recreation program, but noted there are many more with similar problems who could benefit from it. She said they all can be accommodated.


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