Mind. Body. Mingle.

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.

Holland Bloorview’s recent Dear Everybody campaign brought to light just how socially isolated youth with disabilities often feel. For example, fifty-three per cent of kids with a disability have no friends, or only one close friend.

For those lucky enough to have a network of friends, their choices for activities are limited because a lack of accessibility.

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

It’s an eight-week program that 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, welcoming nine Holland Bloorview youth between the ages of 14 and 20.

Youth-approved programming

Kristen English, a therapeutic recreation specialist who helped design the program, is really excited about the weeks ahead.

"It's so client-centered, the youth were essentially our partners and leaders in building this," said Kristen. "The youth even gave the program its name."

It consists of weekly two-hour sessions hosted by two Life Skills coaches who have extensive experience with working with teens.

Goals before going

But long before the first session, each program participant sat down one-on-one with a life coach and identified goals, mapping out what they want to get out of the program.

Some said they wanted to be more active and find new ways of getting in motion. Others wanted to make healthier food choices and become more savvy when grocery shopping or preparing simple meals.

Others still wanted to learn new ways to gain self-confidence, strategies to cope with stress and ways to promote relaxation at home or at school.

And practically all of them voiced their desire to develop solid friendships and be more social.

Active program partner

Speaking of being social, Mind. Body. Mingle. has a very important partner – the YMCA. The sessions take place at the Toronto Sheppard Ave. YMCA Centre.

"We want (the youth) to have an experience that makes them more familiar and comfortable with a community facility," said Kristen.

It’s the perfect venue with the YMCA's athletic facilities where participants take part in a variety of accessible sports and games. Theres also a fitness studio where they enjoy seated yoga and dance. Kristen loves the approach of the YMCA’s staff.

"When we first started our meetings I could tell early on that the staff got it," said Kristen.  "They understood what we’re trying to do. It wasn't just, 'Oh let us help you guys out', it was them going, 'We could really learn from this.'"

"They see it as an opportunity to learn from Holland Bloorview about the services that they’re offering now, and how they can make their programs more accessible," she added.

Hanging out is healthy

Not surprising, the Mingle portion of each evening is less structured. It ranges from drumming sessions to art clinics, to board games, to karaoke and other teen-friendly activities.

"That was a big part of what the youth expressed was important, for them to have a chance to just hang out," said Kristen, who hopes the participants will continue to hang out there after the program is finished.

This particular YMCA hosts a Teen Night every Saturday, after Mind. Body. Mingle. wraps up. (Teen Night is offered at several YMCA centres around the GTA at no cost to high school students.)

"We hope that as the weeks go by some of them feel comfortable staying after they finish the program," said Kristen.

"They could possibly meet other students with and without disabilities…this could continue to be their Saturday night routine because now they’ve got the confidence and experience to be able to go and meet others."