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Rutgers Recreation Department holds 'Special Friends Day' with help of volunteers, student athletes

On Sunday, hundreds of student volunteers and participants celebrated "Special Friends Day" in the Cook/Douglass Recreation Center. The event gave people with mental disabilities a chance to partake in games and activities alongside Rutgers students. – Photo by Casey Ambrosio

From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, the Cook/Douglass Recreation Center hosted over 100 participants with special needs for "Special Friends Day," a day of activities held for people with intellectual disabilities.

Paul Fischbach, the associate director of sports, said the event has taken place every year since 1992. He served as the advisor to the organization that originally started the event, and it has since been operated by Rutgers Recreation.

"Special Friends Day" began as a partnership with the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center, Fischbach said.

“What happened was, there were students who were involved with recreation, who were doing field placement with (the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center),” Fischbach said. “We could invite the children, who were already part of the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center, and host them for a day of carnival-like activities. The first year we did it, we had about 25 children participate, and from there it's just grown. Some of the kids have come year after year ... Some children I've seen grow up here.”

This year there were over 100 participants, said AJ Edenzon, a School of Arts and Sciences senior.

Edenzon has led the committee that organizes "Special Friends Day" for the past two years. She said the committee began working on the event in December.

Each participant is paired with two Rutgers students for the day. Edenzon said that pairing up the participants is the hardest part of organizing "Special Friends Day." Some volunteers have more experience working with those who have intellectual disabilities, and so they are paired with participants who may need more assistance. 

Many volunteers have little or no experience working with the intellectually disabled, and they are partnered with participants who are higher-functioning or need less attention.

As fun as "Special Friends Day" may be for the participants, Edenzon said it is a great experience for the volunteers as well.

“I talked to a guy last year who didn't want to be here, kinda just signed up because he needed community service hours, showed up at 9 a.m. for the training, didn't want to be here. As soon as the kids walked in, his entire disposition changed. He said that he mentally shifted, physically shifted, he was getting involved, playing basketball,” Edenzon said. “It's amazing to see the impact it has on the students.”

Because "Special Friends Day" is entirely staffed by volunteers, there is no cost to the parents of the participants, Fischbach said. 

Marie Witiuk is a parent of one of the participants.

“My son looks forward to this for the entire year,” Witiuk said. “He'll be talking about this for weeks after this. I want to be sure to compliment the turnout of students that come to help these kids. That's wonderful. I hope they take away that special needs children are personalities. We tend to look at them in very broad strokes, and we don't understand they're all individuals and they're nice people.”

Many student volunteers are members of organizations that partner with "Special Friends Day" and this year, over 100 student-athletes volunteered for the event, Witiuk said. 

Steve Hillenbrand, a junior in Rutgers Business School, is a member of the Rutgers men's lacrosse team. He said that this was his second year volunteering for "Special Friends Day."

“It's so rewarding to come out here and get to know a kid throughout the course of the day and have some fun,” Hillenbrand said. “It really gives you a different perspective, helps you to appreciate them more, and definitely opens your eyes to a whole new experience. I'm really happy I've come back this year and I'll definitely be back next year too.”

About half of the student volunteers had no experience working with intellectually disabled people, Fischbach said. There is a pre-training session where volunteers are informed of things to keep in mind while working with the participants. 

He said there is no script and there is not an answer for every case, no matter how much experience some volunteers may have, unforeseeable situations inevitably arise. 

Registration for volunteers opens in the beginning of February.

“If students want to get involved in the future, come find me,” Fischbach said. “Now it's about the students who want to keep it going.”

Max Marcus is a School of Arts and Sciences senior. He is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum.


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