Special Olympians participate in activities designed by Cal Poly volunteers. | Andrew Epperson/Mustang News

Rosie Guzman
Special to Mustang News

Music bounces off the walls of the main basketball courts of Cal Poly’s recreational center. People are all over both courts throwing beach balls into the air and across a net made out of water noodles.

It was just another day in The Friday Club, a program completing its 15th year at the end of spring quarter. The program brings together kinesiology students and Special Olympians. This quarter, the program even involves a group of engineering students working to adapt laser tag for the athletes.

The Friday Club is one of the three concepts created by Kevin Taylor, head of the kinesiology department. Taylor’s Activity4All programs bring physical activity to members of the San Luis Obispo community who have a disability. The Adapted Paddling Program teaches kayaking to those with a mobility impairment and the EyeCycle program brings tandem cycling to low to poor vision individuals.

The Friday Club brings in athletes from the Special Olympics Day Programs in San Luis Obispo County. Special Olympics Southern California is a nonprofit organization that empowers individuals with intellectual disabilities to become physically fit and productive through sports training and competition.

The Special Olympics Day Programs in San Luis Obispo County are managed by Michael Lara, who has been involved with the program for 25 years.

Once the Friday Club became a part of the kinesiology class, Adapted Physical Activity, Lara arranged for the athletes to come on campus where sports activities are provided to the local Special Olympians every Friday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. 

Every week, three students from the class design the entire program, from the activities to discussions.

“Our Special Olympians adapt to all sports and activities, traditional and non-traditional, being offered each week by the presenting students,” Lara said. “There are also group discussions about healthy food choices, sun protection, stretching and similar topics.”

The athletes who participate are split into three groups: elementary and high school, 18-23 year olds and those in wheelchairs.

A lot of creativity goes into the activities. Students string together water noodles to create a volleyball net, use beach balls, hacky sacks and hula hoops to make a sport more than just throwing the ball into the hoop.

Psychology junior Lindsey Hightower was in the class last spring quarter but still comes as a volunteer. 

Hightower has an interest in occupational therapy, chose The Friday Club and fell in love with it.

“Everyone’s so welcoming. The class was really close so it was like a little family,” she said. “It was really fun.”

One Friday, the bonds were obvious. One of the athletes responded to Hightower’s encouraging words with the subtlest of clues: a smile, a nod. But Hightower understood exactly what he was trying to say.

“I think it’s easier to say that you work better with those who are high-functioning because they can talk to you and tell you about their days, but I really like working with the moderate-severe who are nonverbal,” Hightower said. “It’s fun to see little improvements in your relationship through non-verbal ways.” 

It is nerve-wracking in the beginning for many of the volunteers of The Friday Club, but after communicating with the athletes and creating a connection, there is no apprehension or fear.

“(The Cal Poly students) are amazed and overwhelmed sometimes at the extraordinary ability of the athletes. Students that have never had the experience of working with special needs population become more comfortable and it’s awesome to see that,” Lara said. “It’s a win-win for both sides.”

Cal Poly students are creating relationships with the people participating in these programs and the students are learning to break the social stigma that surrounds those who have a disability, Taylor said. 

Taylor has also collaborated with the engineering department. Both kinesiology and engineering students work together to design equipment that helps those with a disability. There have been approximately six to 10 projects created per year for the last eight years.

One of the projects that started fall quarter is a laser tag project where the athletes from the The Friday Club will play laser tag.

“Basically, it brings laser tag to a new audience, people with a disability,” computer engineering senior Paul Fallon said. “We have built it so that it is easy to play with limited mobility.”

Fallon is the project manager of the team, which includes engineers and two kinesiology students. The entire group went to visit The Friday Club and has based their project off the program.

One of the kinesiology students, Julia Bozarth, saw how the laser tag project will encourage inclusivity for the Special Olympians. She has also seen how this project has transformed the members in the team.

“It’s cool teaching the engineers on our team about people with disabilities,” she said. “How to be accepting of others and teaching others how to be accepting.”

The laser tag project is a set of vests the players will put on that are controlled by a tablet to set teams and the game type. It will include a headset that emits a laser from a mechanism over the ear. The trigger, instead of a gun, will be a piece that can be triggered by the user’s bite of a push button triggered by the user’s hand. Everything can be unplugged and changed depending on the user’s needs.

Computer engineering senior Zachary Mintzer has gained a lot of experience from helping build the project and also learning about The Friday Club.

“People don’t always think a lot about how something like this isn’t necessarily available to everybody,” he said. “So to see that as a result of being part of this project is a great experience.”

The team has worked on the laser tag project since the fall. It spent 10 weeks planning and discussing how to go forward with the project before building it winter quarter. By this quarter, it has high hopes the project will be given to the athletes of The Friday Club for use. 

None of the projects nor the programs could have been started without Taylor. Lara said he is grateful to Taylor because of the impact The Friday Club has had on both the students and the Special Olympians.

The Activity4All programs are pushing Cal Poly students to think outside the box while also helping those with a disability in the San Luis Obispo community.

“The athletes have changed the perspectives of the students, and the students are changing lives through sports,” Lara said. “Students become better individuals when they enter their field and have better knowledge of the special needs population.”

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