I completed an Internship at Misericordia, a residential developmental disability center with over 600 residents, in the West Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. I was a part of the recreational programing staff, which plans and executes dozens of weekly activities as well as special events throughout the week. Although I began in the recreation office for the majority of residents, I was also able to crossover into the McAuley center which focuses on the non-ambulatory and medical needs residents.
I first became acquainted with Misericordia on spring break of my freshman year on a Buck-I-Serv trip, and since then had wanted to go back because of the experience. That trip reconfirmed for me that I wanted to be a Special Education teacher more than anything else. Throughout being there I was able to grow in the real-life application of topics I had learned in classes. I learned about how to plan for ratios of staff to residents, as well as to have back-up plans because you never know how engaged everyone will be. I also was able to see how different therapies were integrated into activities, and was able to learn from these recreational therapists which is a field I was not entirely familiar with. All the real-life application skills have led to my growth as a professional, and already has me thinking of ways to improve on the traditional special education classroom.
Beyond growing in my knowledge, I myself changed. Since my first visit, I viewed Misericordia as this perfect system, and to be honest I realized it wasn’t. No system is flawless, and instead you just have to do the very best you can with what you have. Learning this was extremely important, because that mentality will apply to schools too. One would be hard-pressed to find a special education classroom with every resource they could possibly need, and knowing this will enable me to teach in any district and do my best instead of looking for the best school. More than anything else though, the residents changed me. I am used to working with younger children instead of adults, and I was able to have discussions about what they do and don’t like. I also was able to see some of the functional skills that they should have learned before leaving school, and those are the types of things I should have my future high schoolers work on too.
The practical knowledge growth was solely through being thrown in to activities. My very first day in Chicago I came into Misericordia and helped run a movie night for the residents. They asked for my background, and right away had me rolling residents in wheelchairs and engaging. I learned about planning for ratios with Special Olympics, which in Chicago takes places over the course of a whole week. We had to plan buses, who was going what days, and how to get every resident to their events at different times. In regards to back-up plans, we had a bowling outing planned at the bowling alley on campus and then there was a thunderstorm and we were unable to go. Our back-up plan was to bowl with the residents in their living room, and there was pins already stored in the basement. I learned about what goes into building a sensory room and how to apply lift slings so that residents could be moved from their chair to a sensory swing without hurting us or them. I learned about music therapy as well from visiting houses on campus with different instruments. The biggest take-away is being deliberate with your intentions and planning everything out, much like a lesson plan so that there are minimal surprises and that you are ready for them.
Realizing that Misericordia also isn’t perfect, kind of came throughout my month there. When I crossed over from main campus recreation to McAuley recreation there was a major disparity in resources, which was surprising. The residents at McAuley are all in wheelchairs, many non-verbal, and have limited range of motion entirely. Surprisingly they had very few resources, and instead the staff were extremely resourceful. That sort of opened my eyes to the fact that every system has issues, and Misericordia was no different. That doesn’t make them a bad place, just gives them something to work on in the future. Learning from the staff’s resourcefulness though was great, because I know that as a special education teacher I will often have to be resourceful with planning lessons and activities. Interacting with residents was great. We had many bus rides off campus for activities to talk with them, as well as I went to their apartment complex for dinner and we were able to build a close relationship that way. I got to see what activities residents wanted to go to. For example, bingo was always a big hit where we always ran out of space to put people. Meanwhile, rhythmic gymnastics ran around 10 to 15 residents every week. I learned that some residents struggled with imitation, which as I learned last semester can be taught and should be worked on in school. I also saw that many nonverbal residents had no way at all to communicate and were never taught any sign language, which severely limits their ability to functionally communicate what they want. My personal believe is that everyone needs a way to communicate, be it sign language, a visual board, or an alternative augmentative communication device such as an ipad.
In regards to growing as a person, well I learned to find the good in everything. These residents always seem to find the littlest reason to smile. A great example was the last day of Special Olympics. It was raining, cold, and windy. We were late to our assisted races and so they were unable to run to compete in states, but they let them run against each other for fun and every resident was so excited about it. They ignored all the bad things around them and were able to focus on that one great thing. I want to be like that, because life is hard sometimes. There are times where there are so many bad things then good things, but learning to truly find joy in those good things going on is how you have such a great attitude in life. I also personally grew in independence. I moved to a place I had only been once for a month. I learned a new transit system, bought my first two plane tickets in my life, learned to grocery shop and cook for myself. I thought moving to college was my growing up moment, but I learned so much going to Chicago as well.
Before I left Misericordia, I wrote down a few things I learned as life lessons that I also wanted to share. The first one is that there is a difference between being prepared and always fearing for the worst, the latter of which I am often guilty of. Before I went to Chicago I had started reflecting on last time I was there, and I thought about one resident who had been fairly sick and I was worried she would no longer be there. I actually saw her my first day at movie night and I realized I was fearing for the worst, when I could have just prepared myself for that but been optimistic. I also wrote that being present and being yourself is more than enough. I have always struggled with whether my best is really enough, or if I myself am really enough. On more than one occasion, I didn’t know the best way to be helpful, but being there was enough. For example, my second day we had outdoor track practice for Special Olympics. I have never helped with track specifically for individuals with disabilities, my background with special needs sports was cheerleading. Instead, I jumped right in and met residents and helped direct people. I had a few residents at the end tell me they were so glad I was there, and they could not wait to see me again. The last thing I wrote down as a takeaway was that someone is always cheering for you whether you know it or not. Throughout my time there I had more than one resident stop me and tell me that I was going to be a great teacher one day, and that I was good at this. That means a lot, especially because some days I did not know if I was going to be a decent teacher. I have a lot more confidence in myself because these individuals had nothing to gain by telling me that, and I never even told them I worried about that. They just told me they believed in me, and that is a great feeling.
All of this change is valuable because it is helping me grow into the best educator I can be. I have fully acknowledged that in order to be the best teacher I need a wide array of experiences and knowledge, and this trip has fulfilled this. This was not an educator role, instead it was recreation. It is easy to question how that is important or applicable to a future teacher. Though in the same way that general education students get breaks in the day, do field trips, and etc, so should my future students. Also many of the recreational activities helped with goals such as fine motor skill, sharing, paying attention, and etc which are all useable. These experiences will help me understand academic concepts in my future classes, and give me questions that I can ask that change interactions going forward.
Yes, it is obvious this internship will look great on a resume, but it was so much more than that for me. Sure, it might help me get a job but what I gained from this and how I have grown is what will enable me to teach in the most effective way going forward. It more than anything else though, helped me grow. I have become more confident in my abilities, and know that I am meant to do this. Since I have come home I had a long-term substitute placement as one-to-one aide in my local school district. I had been in this classroom before, but even the teachers noticed I knew a lot more since last January when I was in their class. I have so much more to learn academics wise but the chance to apply what I know was invaluable, and I very much look forward to my classroom placement this upcoming fall because I can apply some of what Misericordia taught me as well.
These pictures are from the Opening Ceremonies for Chicago’s 50th Special Olympics on May 3rd. I personally do not have any photos because staff is not permitted to take photos, but I do have these from their social media.