LAMOILLE — The little girl was frustrated. Perched on the edge of a wheelchair, she pushed hard against the door. But every time she pushed, the door pushed back, rolling her a little bit farther away.
“I need some help,” she said.
That was one of the messages to be learned from Wednesday’s Wheel-A-Thon, held at LaMoille’s Allen Junior High School by the staff and friends of the Illinois Valley Center for Independent Living (IVCIL). The event was designed to provide an opportunity for students to experience some of the challenges faced by people in wheelchairs.
“Marla came to me three or four months ago and asked if we’d be interested in doing something like this,” said Allen Principal Jim Brandau. “I thought it would be a good thing because we have a student in a wheelchair.”
Marla is Marla Michalak, a youth advocate at IVCIL. Michalak said the program has been conducted at one area grade school each year for a number of years, but this was the first time it was held at a junior high.
The program involved placing students in wheelchairs and asking them to try and get out the door, maneuver an obstacle course taped on the gym floor, and accomplish a task in their classrooms.
At the end of the day, Brandau said the program was good for the students.
“The kids have been very well behaved and taken it seriously because they know, they’ve seen it,” he said.
Brandau said walking is automatic for most people, and when they sit in a wheelchair, they discover how difficult it is to maneuver. Even for Brandau, who also took a turn in the chair.
“The little obstacle course down here, it looks like it would be very simple, but it’s difficult. I only went over two toes,” he said. “It was more difficult than you’d think.”
That was also the experience of most of the students. Fourth-grader Kyle Pinter struggled to make his way between some desks to retrieve a dictionary.
“I learned how to use a wheelchair and how to turn and how not to hit things,” he said. “It was harder than I thought.”
Ben Polo thought the classroom exercise was the most difficult.
“It was a little harder than the obstacle course because the classroom is smaller than the gym,” he said.
Raygan Cromwell said the hardest part was keeping the wheels straight, and Alexis Wittenauer said some things were harder than others.
“It was hard trying to open the door and trying to get over this carpet with bumps in it,” she said.
For Brian Szuda, associate director at IVCIL, the school programs are a chance to reach students.
“Our perspective is the younger we can approach the youth about understanding and awareness and disability sensitivity, the better off they will be able to appreciate and relate to people with disabilities when they’re in grade school and junior high,” he said. “As they age and progress into high school, they’re not the ones doing the harassing and ridiculing.”
Szuda said children are very impressionable, and IVCIL would like to set a good impression while they’re young.
“That gives them an awareness, not only to be kind to people, but sensitive and know that some people do have a difficult time,” he said.
Szuda said some people are fearful of offering to help a person with a handicap because they don’t know how.
“You might simply just ask them, ‘How can I help you?’” he said.
Szuda said events like Wednesday’s allows them to reach the students and letting them learn through the interactive events.
“By doing experiences like this, reaching these young kids, they’re having fun, they’re having a good time, and they’ll remember this for a long time,” he said. “It’s a win-win for everyone. We’ve done this for a number of years now, and we’ll continue to do it as long as schools are open to it.”
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