Simple Solutions Make A Big Impact

By Sherry Manschot and Sue Omanson

Centennial Beach, a historic aquatic facility in Naperville, Ill., has been a favorite destination for families for 85 years. With a sandy beach, zero-depth entry with water play features, a slide, deep-water and lap-swim areas, sand volleyball, and plenty of space for relaxing and picnicking, the facility offers something for everyone.

Or so they thought. Discovering that the facility wasn’t something that everyone could enjoy posed an unexpected dilemma for the Naperville Park District. Once staff members learned that one family was prevented from attending, they wondered how many others were unable to enjoy the beach for the same reason.

The Dilemma
In 2009, a parent of a child with special needs approached staff members. Although the child loved swimming, trips to Centennial Beach became challenging with the noise, stimulation, and stares from the crowd.

All of the jumping, splashing, and excitement of a typical day at the pool is not necessarily a pleasant experience for everyone. The noise level and splashing, as well as the constant motion of pool patrons, can produce sensory overload for a child with sensory issues. That same constant motion and the sheer number of people in one place on a hot summer day also can be overwhelming and dangerous for a child with mobility issues. And the cooler temperatures at some pools and water parks can increase sensitivity on already sensitive skin.

That stress on a family with special needs is often compounded by a lack of understanding from other children and adults at the pool. There can be awkward stares, questions, and sometimes downright rudeness. With a less noticeable disability, such as autism, there can still be hurtful comments or actions. Sometimes, what should be a relaxing day at the pool is just not possible.

The Question
The response by the park district was to immediately look for a solution. The ability to listen to residents and ask the difficult question, “Could we do better?” is the epitome of outstanding customer service, great stewardship of tax dollars, and commendable efforts to serve ALL residents.

So, what would it take to make a day at the pool a pleasant experience for this segment of residents? Could the district find a way to reasonably accommodate families with special needs at the beach?

The Solution
According to Aquatics Manager Andrea Coates, the staff looked at the beach schedule for a time when families with special needs could enjoy a quieter atmosphere. “We already had begun closing the beach at 6 p.m. on Sundays to allow flexibility for special events,” says Coates. “This was our opportunity to offer several Sunday evenings as Special Needs Nights.”

During the first year, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on selected Sundays throughout June and July, special-needs families were invited to enjoy a relaxing evening after the regular operating hours. The sandy beach and the shallow end of the pool, as well as a slide and the two water-play areas, were opened.

The investment was primarily comprised of staff time. Opening only the shallow end of the pool helped reduce staff cost and has been sufficient for the families enjoying the beach at that time. Admission was set at $3 per person to help defray costs. Attendees did not have to be members of Centennial Beach or residents of the park district, and friends and family members were welcome.

“We began with three evenings, getting the word out through our program guide and through the Western DuPage Special Recreation Association (WDSRA),” explains Coates. “Families flocked to the beach on those evenings, delighted with the relaxed pace and supportive environment. In 2011, we expanded the number of nights from three to four, attracting families from Naperville and from across the Chicago area. In 2016, the program remains popular and appears to be unique among large, public aquatic facilities in the suburbs.”

In addition to hosting Special Needs Nights, Centennial Beach welcomes families and individuals with special needs at any time. The park district provides inclusion services through WDSRA, at no charge to residents, to those individuals with special needs who participate in swim lessons at the beach. An ADA-accessible ramp and lift from the upper level to the sand level and a lift into the pool are also offered. A renovated parking lot and entry provide easy access from vehicles to the facility. Additionally, for the 2016 season, staff plans to provide a beach wheelchair equipped for moving through sand and water.

Create It For Residents
So how can you offer Special Needs Nights at your aquatic facility? With a little thought and planning, you can find a way to make life easier for families with special needs and bring back residents who might not otherwise be engaged.

1.       Reach out to the special-needs community. Is the community avoiding the facility? If so, find out what the obstacles are and if they were removed, would families attend? The local special-recreation association could certainly help with connecting to the special-needs community as well as providing suggestions on removing those obstacles.

2.       Evaluate your current attendance trends. Are there times with much lower attendance but could still be considered desirable family times?

3.       Evaluate the appropriate staffing required and a reasonable admittance fee that can offset the cost. Is it possible within your current structure or with acceptable changes that Special Needs Nights could be offered?

4.       Coordinate getting the word out through your local special-recreation association. Partnering can be the conduit to special-needs families in the area.

Engaging All Residents
With a minimal investment in planning and staff time, Centennial Beach has become an inviting place for families with special needs. These relaxing evenings at the beach provide not only the physical benefits of swimming and sand play, but also a safe and supportive social environment where parents can smile understandingly and children can express themselves exuberantly.

“As Naperville Park District staff, we are delighted that a parent took the time to tell us about their family’s needs, and that we were able to find a way to accommodate those needs,” says Coates.

After all, the true power of parks should be making recreation a part of life for every resident!

Sherry Manschot is the Marketing/PR Manager for the Western DuPage Special Recreation Association in Carol Stream, Ill. Reach her at sherrym@wdsra.com.

Sue Omanson is the Community Development Manager for the Naperville Park District. Reach her at somanson@napervilleparks.org.

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Sidebar:

Swim Nights Bring Families Back To The Beach

Christin Tatarelis avoids regular pool time but has been bringing her family to the Centennial Beach Special Needs Nights for the past few years. “These evenings make us feel a lot more relaxed and comfortable,” she says. “It is very laid back, and that means we don’t have to be as on guard as usual. Less people means less stress for us.”

Tatarelis’ 8-year-old son, Lance, has developmental and cognitive delays. These delays prevent him from catching himself before a fall. Being at a crowded pool can therefore be dangerous. The Special Needs Nights offer a less crowded, safer environment.

In addition, the zero-depth pool gives Lance the chance to walk into the water by himself. “The look on his face says it all,” says Tatarelis. “He is so empowered because he can control how far he goes.” She adds that Lance also adores the water-play areas. The water spray is a particular highlight of the trip and one that he can better maneuver with less traffic around him.

“Lance is so excited to get to the beach and in the water. And he protests when it is time to leave,” says Tatarelis. She is thrilled that she and the family can enjoy this activity together. The experience is such a good one for Lance, his parents, and now his 2-year-old sister that they plan their time around each Special Needs Night and attend as often as possible.