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A chance to play with the other kids

Experience Summer program integrates children with disabilities

Nathan VanderKlippe
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Aug 21/02) - Meet Gugan Sidhu. She's 12, with long black pony tails that bounce when she rocks back and forth.

This morning she's surrounded by other kids her age, all cross-legged on the floor of the William McDonald gym. Their eyes are fixed on little Gerber baby food bottles with the labels washed off. Gugan is a crimson sweatshirt mixed in with a rainbow of other colours.

There's one thing that stands out, though. Gugan isn't doing the craft alone. Just off to her right, a university student is watching her work, encouraging her along. Sheila Nowicki is trained to work with disabled kids, and Gugan has autism.

The pair will spend the week together in the city's summer playground program, playing games and making crafts in the morning, then going to computer camp and doing more of the same in the afternoon.

This is Experience Summer, a city-funded program that matches disabled kids with full-time trained daily help. The goal of the project is integration. Instead of leaving disabled children at home during the summer, or forcing parents to get a babysitter all day long, the program lets kids who need more attention fit in almost seamlessly.

"Our primarily goals are to ... help them build relationships with children and just to get the community aware that these children can participate," said Nowicki. "It's active living for them as well. They're not just sitting at home all throughout the summer."

Seventeen kids participated this summer, either tagging along with the city's program or Inukshuk Safety Ventures, a summer program run by the Elks. The disabilities include autism, Down's Syndrome, bipolar disorder and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. The kids are six to 18 years old.

This year, the program was funded by a $20,000 one-time grant from the city, $8,000 from the Legion, $5,000 from the Elks Lodge, $2,900 from Human Resources Development Canada and $500 from BHP Billiton Diamonds. The cost to parents is the cost of the summer program: $100 for the city program, $130 for the Elks program.

That provided enough money to hire three staff and spend one week with each child. Nowicki hopes she can expand that next year. The hope is to double the staff, work with a few more kids, and help each kid for two weeks instead of one.

Rupeinder Sidhu, Gugan's mother, said she would fully support expanding the program, saying the more chances Gugan gets during the summer, the better.

"Kids her own age help her in a way grownups can't because they challenge her a lot better," said Sidhu. "She has to relate to them, ... and they also understand that she can't always do everything as quickly. She needs that."

The alternative for Gugan is staying at home with her two older siblings or a sitter and sleeping in

"She likes to be by herself. If she had her way, she'd be colouring all day or watching movies or listening to music," said Sidhu. "But she'd be by herself. With the program, it puts her in a situation where she has to relate to other kids and ask them for help."

As for Gugan, Sidhu says she has begun looking forward to the daily activities. And this morning, that means she is holding a glue dabber in one hand, streaking a wet paste of glue across the glass. She presses neat rows of split peas and pinto beans into the sticky surface, patting them down like mosaic tiles.

As she does, she sways back and forth, rocking from buttocks to knees. Enrique Iglesias and Christina Aguilera pump sappy love songs into the gym, and Gugan raises her hands in an occasional outburst. "Ok!" she yells, then claps her hands.

As she does, she beams a smile so contented it's infectious.