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'Aktion' oriented

By Patti Murphy

Staff writer

Special recreation groups aspire to help out in community

What makes a true partnership has always been a bit of a mystery.

Is a connection the result of chemical compatibility? Do opposites attract or is it just the opposite? For two members of the Western DuPage Special Recreation Association, a mutual interest in community service was the force that led to each other.

Jennifer Ricketts, 30, and Rob Wiesenthal, 34, both of Wheaton, became an item through their participation in a program known as Aktion Club. A Kiwanis sponsored club run through the special recreation association, the group allows special needs-adults in areas such as Glen Ellyn and Wheaton to donate their time and further their knowledge by becoming involved in fundraising and philanthropic efforts and listening to guest speakers.

It also gives participants a chance to make friends, and in some instances, find that one person with whom they relate.

"We do this thing called Happy Quarters where everybody puts a quarter in and talks about something that's on their mind. When Jennifer and Rob put their quarters in, they talk about a fun date they went on and look over at the table at each other," said Becca Bogenschutz, program coordinator at WDSRA. "It's really cute."

"He's a great boyfriend," Ricketts gushed about Wiesenthal. "I love his personality."

Of course Aktion Club does a whole lot more than play matchmaker. The group's 20 members take part in activities like helping out at a Glen Ellyn food pantry and the Kiwanis Peanut Days, which raises money for local charities. They've also cleaned a park and visited the DuPage animal shelter to learn about the adoption process and play with the animals.

Adult services are an important facet to organizations that provide for a unique demographic like the disabled. At South East Association for Special Parks and Recreation in Downers Grove, 1,000 of the 1,213 participants involved in programming are 18 or older.

"A lot of the participants are adults because our programs run in the evenings and weekends when younger kids may have homework or therapy," said Matt Corso, assistant superintendent of recreation at SEASPAR.

SEASPAR offers nine different social clubs, which meet every Friday night.

"All of the clubs meet at different locations, which means we have to have nine groups of staff available," Corso said. "We only have four vans so we have to rotate out trips. One social club might meet and do crafts, and then next week they might go out to the movies or to dinner."

Social groups are never larger than 12 people so as to remain manageable and allow for concentrated interaction between workers and participants.

The recreation group also has an Aktion Club. The 22-member club was organized by Susan Friend, director of SEASPAR and past president of the Lombard Kiwanis Club.

"I thought it was important to initiate an Aktion Club as president given the nature of what I do," Friend said. "Members plan service projects. They call each other as reminders and keep everyone organized."

The clubs, which were both founded a little more than a year ago, meet twice a month along with representatives from cooperating Kiwanis clubs. Western DuPage works with the Glen Ellyn and Wheaton Kiwanis groups, while South East meets with the Lombard and Downers Grove chapters.

While Northeastern Special Recreation Association is the group that serves Lombard residents, it is without an Aktion Club. So the Lombard Kiwanis Club is involved with SEASPAR, Friend explained.

Aktion Club is structured like a Kiwanis Club with a president, vice president, secretary and treasurer. Elections at the Western DuPage center were held recently with the vice president, Anna Magio, automatically moving to fill the top position being vacated by Ricketts on Sunday, Oct. 1.

"Aktion Club focuses on higher functioning individuals who are mildly mentally challenged," Bogenschutz said. "This gives them an opportunity to do some service."

Guests to the WDSRA club have included a firefighter, a police officer with a dog and a self-defense instructor who gave individuals pointers on how they can best protect themselves. Participants often collaborate at meetings on social projects or speakers they would like the club to pursue.

"I've recommended things that I'm interested in," Wiesenthal said. "I'm an environmentalist and an animal rights person."

It was Wiesenthal's suggestion that the club plant flowers outside the WDSRA building in Carol Stream. Ricketts wants to see the group work with senior citizens.

A social club for those served by Northeast DuPage Special Recreation Association in Addison is Club ASPIRE. An acronym for Adults Seeking Potential in Recreation, the club is open to participants who live in the organization's designated areas and are ages 19 to 26.

"The philosophy behind the group is that it targets individuals who are leaving high school and helps them to become more social," said Laura Christensen, coordinator for outdoor and adventure services at the organization. "This is an age that is challenging because individuals often don't have a job right away, and this helps them get started."

The group meets twice a week in the afternoons and participates in volunteering activities like working in a Bensenville nursing home. Social outings and events like Career Day also are planned.

Additionally, NEDSRA organizes big out-of-state trips for some of its developmentally disabled members. This year's trip was to Colorado, specifically Brekenridge, where participants went white-water rafting.

"These big trips help members increase their confidence," Christensen said.

When it comes to confidence, Ricketts is the expert. She recently took the skills she has honed as an Aktion Club member and spoke at a Kiwanis conference in Dubuque, Iowa.

"It went really well," Ricketts said about the engagement. "I talked about the things Kiwanis has done in the past and the good things we have for the future."

Patti Murphy's e-mail address is:
pmurphy@libertysuburban.com