New health promotion program makes Saturday nights special

Most teens, including teens with disabilities, don’t want to sit around the house on Saturday night. Yet far too many do, wishing they could be out with friends.

For those who do go out, their choices for activities are limited because a lack of accessibility.

Looking to change this, Holland Bloorview helped a group of youth build friendships while building practical life skills through a new health promotion pilot program called Mind. Body. Mingle.

This eight-week program gives youth with disabilities the chance to learn new ways to be healthier mentally and emotionally, get active, and get connected to the community and to each other. The program launched in October 2017, welcoming nine Holland Bloorview youth between the ages of 14 and 20.

The youth were our partners and leaders in building this, says Kristen English, a therapeutic recreation specialist who helped design the program. The youth even gave the program its name.

Mind. Body. Mingle. consists of weekly two-hour sessions hosted by two life skills coaches with extensive experience working with teens. Before the first session, each participant sits down one-on-one with a life coach and identified goals, mapping out what they want to get out of the program.

Some want to be more active. Others want to make healthier food choices and become more savvy when grocery shopping or preparing meals. Others still want to learn new ways to gain self-confidence, strategies to cope with stress and ways to promote relaxation at home or school. And practically all of them voice their desire to develop new friendships and be more social.

Mind. Body. Mingle. had a very important partner – the YMCA. The sessions take place at the Toronto Sheppard Avenue YMCA Centre. It’s the perfect venue where participants can take part in a variety of accessible sports, games and arts activities. There is also a fitness studio where they can enjoy seated yoga and dance. Kristen loves the approach of the YMCA’s staff. The YMCA team is really engaged, said Kristen. They understand our goals and see it as an opportunity to learn how they can make their programs more accessible.

In addition to organized activities, the mingle portion of the evenings is less structured. It ranges from drumming sessions, to board games, to karaoke and other teen-friendly fun. That was what the youth expressed was important, for them to have a chance to hang out, said Kristen, who hopes the participants will continue to hang out there now that the program is finished.

They could possibly meet other students with and without disabilities, she added. This can continue to be their Saturday night routine because now they’ve got the confidence and experience to go and meet others.