This summer, our Young Athletes program went virtual so that we could continue to meet the needs of our Young Athletes and their families during the pandemic. One of the families who participated consistently throughout the summer was the Zwicke family. Cody is six years old and has Down syndrome. Normally Cody participates in the St. Francis’s Children’s Center Young Athletes program in Glendale. Even though he can’t participate in person with his friends, he still gets to see them virtually through our practices. We spoke with Tami Zwicke, Cody’s mom, about what the virtual Young Athletes program has meant to Cody and their family.
SOWI: Can you tell us a little bit about Cody’s experience with Special Olympics and Young Athletes before the pandemic?
Tami: Cody had participated in one in-person session of Young Athletes at Saint Francis Children’s Center Family Activity Center last summer. This was held at SFCC in their gym and facilitated by Cherie Purdy and her husband. Cody really enjoyed this but this was his first time participating in an organized athletic activity where he had to learn to follow rules and learn how to do new activities and use new materials he may not have used before. It was nice because the group was small so they could learn from each other. A big thing that was new for Cody was team work and working with others in organized physical activities.
SOWI: What impact has the pandemic had on him and his ability to be social and active?
Tami: The pandemic has had a huge impact on Cody. First of all, the social groups that are so important to us and him were canceled. At first completely, and then some did start some virtual options. This includes Gigi’s Playhouse, Saint Francis Children’s Center’s weekly Chatter Scatter, Topps Soccer and Miracle League Baseball. He also was home-schooled and did not get to interact with his friends at school. His school/classroom as he was K5 did not offer virtual interaction or teaching in the spring. We were emailed websites and activities we could do. Socially this was a setback. Cody is a social kid but is still shy. He had built some really good friendships. Many of his friends also have special needs and are high risk just like he is. So our families have been taking this pandemic very seriously. Our family of three, Cody and myself and his dad were quarantined together. It is now almost September and we have still not eaten at a restaurant beside carry out and one small restaurant up north on our summer family vacation. Luckily our vacation was in July and because our cabin is so remote it was OK to go on our once-a-year family vacation.
During most of the pandemic we have tried to stay active doing things outside. As we live on the east side of Milwaukee this sometimes was a challenge. Through March, April, May and June we did not see anyone. I was the only one who really left the house and mainly for groceries. As Cody’s verbal skills are still developing, we did not do any Zoom or Google meet-ups with his friends. We did participate in some virtual programs through Gigi’s Playhouse which were lots of fun. He also participated in virtual OT through Concordia University and virtual speech through UWM Speech Clinics. We also added Virtual Young Athletes as we quickly realized we could not get Cody to get enough physical exercise. As we live on the east side we usually take advantage of all the playgrounds but these were all closed do to COVID. We actively tried to go on a family walk every day and some sort of exercise. With all of Cody’s extracurricular activities such as Topps soccer, miracle league baseball, Gigi’s Playhouse and SFCC Chatter Scatter canceled he did not see kids his age regularly at all. Around July we finally started to see a few people but they were mainly family. That is when we were grateful to go on our family vacation.
Another wonderful thing that helped us get through the pandemic was a three-month membership through the WAC. Starting in July we were able to go swimming multiple times a week this was wonderful. We also participated in the weekly Young Athletes program which we could easily do in our home.
SOWI: How have the virtual practices helped him and/or your family during these difficult times?
Tami: The virtual practices have helped by keeping Cody active and engaged. No matter how much we tried to do activities outside they are not enough for a six-year-old boy. The other challenge is he doesn’t always want to do everything with his parents but we were not seeing other kids during this pandemic and even now are very selective of who we meet with, as Cody is high risk. Jenna Lang, who runs Young Athletes, is very knowledgeable about each activity that was planned. Each session was planned out and followed a specific order. We were very impressed with the variety of different things we could do even in regards to stretches and cool down. As a parent I enjoyed hearing about why each task we did was important and the different suggestions of modifications that were given.
These practices helped our family as we could do them together. It was a way to have socialization with other families as well as the coach and sometimes coach mentors. It was an outlet for us as a family. Sometimes it was a challenge to get Cody to participate if he wasn’t feeling into whatever activity were doing but we were able to modify to keep his interest. This was a regular activity that we looked forward to each week. As our house was small, we were also able to fit whatever were doing in a small space and sometimes we practiced outside. Each week we learned a new skill and practiced older skills. For this hour we were able to have fun as a family, get in shape, exercise and not think about the pandemic. We also could do this in the safety of our own home. It also was wonderful to see the inclusivity of this. Anyone at any skill level could participate. Cody especially loved when all of us participated together: mom, dad (Nick) and Cody.
SOWI: Was it difficult to get him interested in the virtual practices or did he take to them easily?
Tami: The most difficult thing for Cody to get him interested was just starting. He likes being home and that being said loves to play all day. When he had virtual therapies or programs it was not easy to get him to sit in front of the computer. That being said, usually once the programs start he joins in. For Young Athletes he didn’t always understand that you can’t always do whatever you want. There are some guidelines of what we are learning. As a parent I welcome this: he needs this structure. This is very much like schools. So even though Jenna was flexible in some of the activities, we did follow a reliable routine. Warm-up was the biggest struggle for Cody as he did need a little bit of time to warm up. What kept him interested was seeing other kids and families participating.
He also really enjoyed when us parents joined in. Sometimes we were the ones doing the activity and he was sort of telling us what to do. Either way, he was learning about that activity. That could be true for our baseball/throwing clinic. We were outside at my sister’s house. She had rackets and bats and baseball materials. Cody was supposed to hit the ball and run bases. He did do this a few times but at some point enjoyed it more when he was the pitcher and was throwing the ball and we hit the ball and were running the bases. We also at some point modified the activity to use sticky balls and velcro mats. He enjoyed just throwing the ball. We would catch it and run bases. Cody’s favorite part of the the whole practice I would say was the end. He loved how Jenna chose a really great closing video. He would clap his hands and stomp his feet and it was a great closing.
SOWI: What has been his favorite part of the experience?
Tami: His favorite part was actually doing the activities. He especially loved kicking, running and throwing. What was amazing was when we received a full kit of supplies! This made him so excited to use them! We now set up the hula hoops and bars and do exercises. In one photo you see him trying to teach Batman how to do some. The other favorite part is that Jenna had an intern teach some of the lessons. At one point she explained a bit about him and how he at one point had participated in Special Olympics so that was really great.
His least favorite part was when a parent was not prepared. When we knew what activities we were planning to do we could prep for them. He also struggled when there were week gaps or a couple of weeks gaps. He did the best when the routine was every week and we could plan for each week.