The courses you take your first year of college can have a lasting impact – especially when it’s one of the College of Charleston’s first-year seminars.
“These courses have a lifelong effect on the students involved, and some of them even expand outside the classroom and impact the community in a significant way,” says Chris Korey, director of the first-year experience at the College of Charleston. “The best example of this is Susan Flynn’s FitCatz program.”
FitCatz is an aquatic and motor therapy community service program designed to help children with disabilities become efficient movers. Open to 2–15 year olds with a range of physical, intellectual, behavioral and emotional disabilities, the program is tailored to each child’s individual needs and may include anything from body awareness and spatial orientation to sport and water safety skills.
The children work one on one with their assigned student from Flynn’s FYSE 138 Special OPS Therapy Tactics for six two-hour sessions, each divided between practicing motor patterns and sport skills in the gym, fine motor skills in the sensory room and water safety, swimming skills, fitness and functional mobility in the pool.
The first-year students are tasked with assessing abilities and conducting motor screenings, establishing goals and objectives for the children, creating lesson plans for each class and writing reflections after each session. While they’re at it, they are learning about developmentally appropriate activities, how to redirect students who aren’t on task and strategies for engaging children.
“For the college students, it is kind of like an introduction to special education class with a twist of adapted P.E.,” says Flynn, a senior instructor of teacher education, adding that – while some students are interested in pursuing careers in physical/occupational therapy or teacher education – some students take the first-year seminar just because it sounds like a neat experience.
“The students frequently let me know how surprised they are by how much they love this experience,” says FitCatz assistant director Mariel Saldutte, who has been the peer facilitator for the course from the beginning. “Many of them came in never having worked with children before, let alone children with special needs that would require them to change the way they work to better enhance each child’s experience.”
Flynn acknowledges the challenge for the college students. They are one-on-one with a special needs child for two hours. That means sweating in the gym, helping the child change into a bathing suit and being in the pool with the child.
“It takes a strong freshman to work with a child who doesn’t respond verbally or who has to be lifted in and out of a chair,” says Flynn, who started similar programs at the University of Toledo and Purdue University.
Launched at the College in spring 2014 and hosted on the campus of Ashley Hall, the FitCatz community program now supports 22 local students with disabilities each semester and – in addition to the 21 FYSE students, Flynn and Saldutte – has four staff members (a physical therapist, an occupational therapist and two aquatic specialists) and six volunteer group leaders (exercise science seniors at CofC).
“FitCatz is a wonderful example of a course that gives hands-on experience to students in their first year, while also providing upper-level student training for seniors,” says Korey.
“What’s most impressive to me, though, is seeing students who’ve already taken the class come back and volunteer,” says Flynn, explaining that there are 5–7 former FYSE student clinicians who donate their time to the program every week. “That is just so impressive to me.”
It shows just how much of an impact the course is having.
“This course teaches students how to do research in the classroom and in the field, gives them the chance to apply what they’re learning and to reflect on that, and also gives them a taste of what its like to work out in the community,” says Flynn. “Hopefully it will encourage them to make community service a priority in life.”