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 Article of Interest - Therapy

PLAY THERAPY: Special needs kids have place to grow
by Dan Shine, Detroit Free Press, March 25, 2003
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Jeanne Lizza was exhausted from transporting her special needs son to appointments and therapy sessions in Mt. Clemens and Detroit.

She wanted something closer to her Grosse Pointe home. The time spent driving Thomas Liddane, now 7, around town made it difficult to chauffeur her other three children to their after-school activities.

She also wanted something less expensive. A 40-minute recreational therapy session for Thomas' speech and language impairments cost more than $80 and wasn't covered by insurance.

After one particularly hectic day a little more than three years ago, Lizza had had enough.

"I said to my husband, 'There has to be a better way,' " she says.

So Lizza found one.

She organized Kids at the Club, a series of programs for special needs children at the Neighborhood Club, a Grosse Pointe agency that organizes recreational, educational and social activities for residents of the Pointes and Harper Woods.

Children can participate in recreational therapy and classes that combine music, movement and art projects. There is bowling at a local alley, one-on-one piano lessons, a tennis clinic and swimming classes.

Private donations keep the cost of the programs at a fraction of what private lessons and therapy would be. An hour of recreational therapy, for instance, costs $10. And each child gets a T-shirt, just like the kids who play on soccer or baseball teams.

Lizza says there were no recreational opportunities for special needs kids in the area. Soccer and baseball leagues and other activities weren't set up to accommodate them.

"Nothing was going on for this group of kids," Lizza says. "There was just a need. These kids love to have places to go, too."

Burning up energy

On a recent Saturday, about 10 children played in an upstairs room at the Neighborhood Club.

There were large mats and inflatable pillows to tumble on. There were different sized balls for kicking around or playing catch. There was even a short basketball hoop.

Daring kids could grab hold of a zip line handle and zoom across the room, crashing into mats piled against the opposite wall.

Two swings at one end of the room sent children flying in circles.

Jill Phillips, 26, a physical therapy student at Wayne State University who will graduate in May, offered help and suggestions for parents.

"We don't want this to be another therapy," Phillips says. "It's a bit structured but it's mostly fun."

Phillips brings out different equipment and toys each weekend so the kids will try new skills.

"It's disguised as play but we work on things," she says. "We play basketball and work on coordination. We problem-solve by climbing over things."

Children also work on their social skills. They learn to wait, take turns and verbalize which activity they want to do.

John McCarty of Grosse Pointe Park spent most of his hour of recreational therapy circling a corner of the room on a swing. His mother, Joan McCarty, worked up a sweat as she tugged on a rope to keep him moving. John, 8, has sensory dysfunction.

"There is open gym at school but because of John's behavior people might not get it and we wouldn't be welcomed back," McCarty says. "Places like this are best for kids who have the most severe disabilities."

John has been coming to recreational therapy for a couple of years.

"He wants to come here," McCarty says. "He loves it, he absolutely loves it. It's not a learning environment. It's fun, fun, fun. It's a way to blow off steam."

Mary Ellen Kaiser enrolled her 5-year-old daughter, Maggy, in a music class sponsored by a children's clothing store. When Maggy, who is mentally impaired, just sat in front of her instrument as the other parents and children stared.

"It made me feel awkward," says Kaiser of Grosse Pointe Park. "When I started here, I said, 'This is where I belong.' "

Kaiser says the Neighborhood Club activities are good for her home-schooled daughter.

"This is a way for her to get out and see some kids," Kaiser says as Maggy swings back and forth. "Socially, she has brothers and sisters at home but she still needs to get out and see other people. She gets to come here and run around. The swing is good for her trunk ability."

Maggy shares the swing with 4-year-old Lindsey Young, who is autistic.

Besides the recreational therapy, Lindsey and parents Michelle and Bill Young of Grosse Pointe Park participate in a music and art class called "Make Mine Music." She is home-schooled, and Michelle Young says she has had a hard time finding activities for Lindsey.

"The Neighborhood Club programs have made a huge difference because there is nothing for her," Young says. "This brings the social aspect for Lindsey. It's so close. You don't have to go driving all over the place.'

While her swingmate, Maggy, participates in swimming, Lindsey is preparing to play tennis.

"We don't know if she can even hold a racquet but we'll never know if we don't try," Young says.

A novel idea

Lizza had struggled to get schools and agencies to offer services for special needs kids. But when she approached the Neighborhood Club to see if they would be interested in her idea, she was surprised by the response.

"They said that they would love to have us. No one ever loves to have us."

The Neighborhood Club had no money or equipment to offer her, just space. Lizza, a club volunteer, collected enough donations to buy some equipment and defer program costs.

"It's making each kid individually better," Lizza says. "We don't compare them to other children."

While the children benefit from participating in recreational therapy, it's a valued hour for parents, too. They share their concerns, problems and successes in caring for their children.

"It's definitely necessary for me to get out and figure out what things the other parents are doing to help their kid," Kaiser says.

Young says Lizza and other parents are great resources if she's looking for help. And discussing problems is easier with parents who understand.

"The friends I had before I had Lindsey don't necessarily understand what you're going through," Young says. "Here, they've gone through it or are going through it."

McCarty says the parents are connected because of their children.

"I have no reason to know her," she says, gesturing to Young. "She doesn't live near me and our kids don't go to the same school. But now I know her. It's an incredible support thing. We really need that."

Contact DAN SHINE at 313-223-4554 or

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