How you came to work with NSSRA and how you were matched with Danielle?
I started with NSSRA just after I turned 16. Someone who knew my dad through work had told me that if I wanted to go into special education, NSSRA would be a great experience. I was hesitant about going into special ed, so I thought I’d give it a try, and I actually fell in love with it. The first two years I was with one participant and in my third year I was paired up with Danielle.
The first year with Danielle was a bit challenging. She was coming off a not-so-good school year and she was very afraid to be anywhere without me. The goal that first summer working with her was to help her feel safe and be included. I have to say, from the time I started working with her to now she has changed. She has become so independent.
She’s been to Camp Duncan twice, on a few overnight trips and she’s going to Galena this December. I think now that she’s getting older she’s realizing that, “Oh, I can do these things,” whereas before when she was a third grader it was hard for her to voice her opinion and say, “This is what I need.”
After working with Danielle and the Cooperman family for several summers, what are some of your favorite memories or experiences?
Without question, Camp Duncan in August 2017 stands out as one of my best memories with Danielle. I think the rock climbing wall at Camp Duncan proved a point for her to all those people who have said, “No, you’re not going to be able to do this,” or “No, you can’t do this.” Well, she climbed the rock wall at Camp Duncan without any help!
Is there a moment between you and Danielle that stands out as key in building your relationship together?
I think just always greeting her each day with a smile. When I opened the door and got her out of the car each morning, I wanted her to feel safe and feel like she was going to have a great time at camp. She would always tell me, “You’re my buddy, I love you, Molly!” It’s just those things that go so far, and it melts my heart to see her happy and playing with her friends.
Even this past summer, I just took a step back and she would be off with her friends playing a game and not even notice that I wasn’t right there with her. When I first started with her that never happened because she was just so afraid that I was not going to be with her when she needed something. I was like her safety blanket. The consistency of just showing up every day positively put her at ease and gave her a chance to feel comfortable trying new things.
How has working for NSSRA and with Danielle influenced you personally?
I think the tools that NSSRA provides participants, giving them the encouragement that they can do things and it’s okay to need a little help. We all have something we need to work on. You know, maybe a participant needs help eating, but I look at it like they just need a little extra help.
I think it’s prepared me for teaching in a few areas, one being that not every student is going to be the same. Having all these different experiences at NSSRA and meeting so many different people, whether staff that have been there a long time or talking to the new-hires, I think it has given me more perspective, I was in their shoes at one point.
I really loved when there were opportunities at training for the staff to interact because I got to share some experiences of how I prepare myself for the summer. When you’re new you’re walking in blind, you have no idea how the summer’s going to turn out. It’s one of those things where you just have to take a deep breath and know that not every day is going to be the same; you have to go with it and honestly, laugh it out. That’s what I would say to everybody, just laugh. Have fun, make silly faces! If Danielle and I were having a moment, sometimes we would just walk to the front desk to say hi because she really loved the lady who worked there. It would calm her down and then she’d be happy to go back to art.
Why should students consider working for NSSRA, even if they don’t want to eventually work in therapeutic recreation or with people with special needs?
I’ve met so many wonderful people and made so many friends. I worked with someone two years ago and we still keep in contact. If you choose to work for NSSRA, you’ll have friends and you’ll have connections with families that can get you places. You’ll have different opportunities and different experiences. You can have fun at work! Who gets to go to work and play outside the entire summer? You get to go down water slides for like three hours. Who gets to go to sleepaway camp in Maine or even Colorado?
To me, all of those experiences… if I hadn’t worked for NSSRA I probably wouldn’t have gone solely into special education. I probably would have just done general education. I think if you don’t know what to major in or you think you might want to go into special ed and you’re not sure, give it a shot. You will be changed.