Helping Hands: Two Daughters Improve the Lives of Children With Special Needs in Their Communities
By Lena Anthony
Volume 146, Number 2, March/April 2012, Page 6
Boosting confidence and cultivating friendships one swim practice at a time
In 1997, Karen Bernardo was disappointed with the lack of programs catering to children with special needs in her community of Wellesley, Mass. Her stepdaughter, Cassie, then a teenager, wanted to participate in activities and socialize with other kids, but there just weren’t many opportunities. So Mrs. Bernardo and her husband, Tom, created one.
That year, they launched Wellesley S.T.A.R.S. (www.wellesleystars.org), which offers a swim training and competition program for individuals with special needs ages 6 to adult.
“As a parent of a child with special needs, you’re the best friend, the confidant, you’re everything,” she says. “For the typical kid with special needs, the phone never rings. We saw Wellesley S.T.A.R.S. as a way to help these kids develop social skills, raise their self-esteem and improve their confidence levels.”
Mrs. Bernardo volunteers as head coach for the program, which has grown from four athletes to 31 athletes. The program runs January through June and includes a weekly swim practice and about a dozen swim meets. While athletes aren’t required to compete, Mrs. Bernardo pushes her swimmers to overcome their fears.
One of her proudest moments was watching one of her athletes, a girl who was blind, reach the other end of the pool in her very first swim meet. “Leading up to that moment, I got a lot of ‘I can’t do this,’” Mrs. Bernardo recalls. “Some parents said I was being too tough on her. At the competition, she was crying and told me she wasn’t going to participate. It came to her heat and all of a sudden she took off and did the most beautiful freestyle stroke. Everyone was in tears. It was just one of those moments I never thought would happen, but it did and it was beautiful.”
Over the years, Wellesley S.T.A.R.S. has had six athletes attend the Special Olympics National Games, and one competitor represented Team USA at the 2007 World Games in Shanghai, China. “She got the first gold medal for Team USA that year,” Mrs. Bernardo recalls. “She came home with three gold medals and a silver.” And the coach is not without her own accolades: Mrs. Bernardo was a 2008 inductee into the Massachusetts Special Olympics Hall of Fame.
The medals are wonderful, but Mrs. Bernardo points out that she’d be just as proud of her athletes if they never won one: “My philosophy is it’s not about the medals, but how you feel inside when you’re part of a team.”
Bernando, a member of the Amos Mills-Lucy Jackson Chapter, Wellesley, Mass., currently serves as chapter treasurer. She has served on the state level as American Heritage Chairman and is currently serving as District Director. “I have met so many wonderful people in the DAR and truly enjoy my work for the organization,” she says.
Connie Gilkeson Boggess
Horses help special-needs kids develop life skills
Connie Gilkeson Boggess has loved horses for as long as she can remember. “In kindergarten I had a pretend friend—a horse named Princess,” she says. After graduate school, when most of her friends were getting their first apartments, Mrs. Boggess moved back home with her parents and bought a horse.
Today, Mrs. Boggess gets to pursue her lifelong love for horses by working with them at River Cities Therapy and Recreation Center (www.rctrc.org) located at her family farm in Milton, W.Va. The nonprofit program that she started in 1994 uses horses to help improve the social, emotional, cognitive and physical well-being of individuals with special needs.
The program operates seasonally, usually running from May until October. With the help of three carefully trained horses, a mule named Seven and several devoted volunteers, the program serves about 40 children per season. Students with muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, visual impairment, Down syndrome, autism, amputations, deafness and attention deficit disorder have benefited from the lessons.
Students learn to ride the horses and also help take care of them. In turn, the horses help students improve their walking gait, learn vital life skills like self-grooming and give them a much-needed confidence boost. “It’s pretty empowering to get on something that weighs 1,500 pounds and be able to ride,” she says. “It’s just an unbelievable situation.”
During the day, Mrs. Boggess, a member of the Kanawha Valley Chapter, Milton, W.Va., works as an occupational therapist until it’s time to pick up her two children from school. (She also leads her chapter’s Conservation Committee and serves as the senior president of the Kanawha Salines Society C.A.R.) She and her kids head home for a few hours to make dinner and do homework before meeting their students at the center. They’re back at the house by 8:30 p.m., just in time to get ready for bed so they can wake up early and feed the horses the next morning.
Her passion to help children through riding is a sacrifice—both of time and money—for the entire family, but Mrs. Boggess says it’s worth it. “It absolutely makes your heart soar to see these kids light up around the horses,” she says. “You can actually see their confidence increase.”