Gym programs provide life skills, independence

With the care and attention given to bathing a newborn, Jason Lampasona gingerly wiped down the footpad on the first of a long line of StairMasters in the Adrian C. “Ace” Israel Fitness Center. Repeating instructions to himself, he crouched in front of the machine until every last remnant of dirt had vanished.

Not as meticulous as Lampasona, Cory McGee, who hopes to maybe work in sports one day and earn his own living, focuses on the elliptical trainers. His job coach, Joanna, gently reminds him not to forget about the center of the machine, between the pedals.

Both Lampasona and McGee are students of Vista Vocational and Life Skills Center, a program for adults and young adults with neurological disabilities. Through internship programs, like the one that brings Vista students into Payne Whitney Gymnasium, and by working with life skills coaches, Vista hopes to help its students achieve independent lifestyles, complete with money-earning jobs and their own homes.

Both Vista and SARAH, another program much like Vista but for individuals who need more assistance, have found working at the Payne Whitney to be a positive experience for their students.

Interacting with gym users can pose challenges for the students, especially when impatient gym attendees are not aware of the purpose of the programs and want to use a machine being meticulously cleaned by a student.

But Helen Bosch, Vista’s executive director, said cleaning at the gym is a good stepping stone for slightly more demanding jobs to which Vista’s students can graduate.

“I think that the Yale gym is a setting that works very well because a lot of our young adults do well with hands-on skills,” Bosch said. “They like a working environment where they’re moving around and using their hands. This setting offers that for them. As well as it’s a pleasant and up-beat environment and a health-focused setting.”

Craig Allison, SARAH employment and life skills facilitator, also said his students find that Payne Whitney provides a good outlet for them and the precision they like to achieve in their work.

“One reason we chose Yale is because it’s a very prominent member of the community,” Allison said. “Also, it allows us to bring the people in our program into a campus setting, which is where their peers would be … We utilize the cleaning aspect because that task requires attention to detail, and also a little bit of social skills — interacting with the public.”

Though participants in the SARAH program live at home, some Vista students, who come from all over the country, live on the Vista campus in Westbrook, Conn., Vista Job Coordinator Chuck Caldwell said the two-year program on a campus that feels very much like a “small New England college” involves group meetings and classes to teach essential life skills. Each student also has his or her own counselor, and the overall Vista student to faculty ratio is 16 to 9.

After completing the program on the Vista campus, a student can move into an outreach house in Guilford, and then into his or her own apartment. Another option is to go straight into the outreach program.

Caldwell said that working at Payne Whitney, one of the many work sites Vista visits, is one of the first stops that students make in the Vista program. Lampasona and McGee, both 21, are fairly new to Vista.

Not only do Vista and SARAH provide their students with tremendous amounts of help and guidance, but they are great assets to Yale, Larry Matthews, associate director for sports and recreation, said. Matthews, who is the Yale liaison for Vista and SARAH, said Yale is more than happy to accept the services of the programs.

“What these guys are doing is just a big, big help,” Matthews said. “I haven’t gotten any negative feedback about it. When I do get feedback, it’s always in the form of a compliment.”

The programs take full responsibility for the actions of their students, Matthews said, and are careful to monitor their behavior. Last year, Matthews said, one of the students was a bit disruptive in the gym, often yelling. The student’s behavioral problems led him to throw the lid of a newspaper receptacle across the gym, almost hitting someone. But as soon as Matthews spoke with the job coach, the student’s parents were called in and he was moved to another site more suited to his needs.

Both Lampasona and McGee said, with varying levels of enthusiasm, that they enjoy their work at the gym. While McGee said he would eventually like to have a paying job, Lampasona said he does not necessarily care about earning an income.

But whatever their desires for the future, Vista and SARAH students benefit from the work experience they gain with the programs.

“It’s very exciting to see a student when they first come in, and not know how they’ll get through [the Vista process], and then to see their successes,” Caldwell said. “It’s really heartwarming … Maybe the most exciting aspect is that a lot of the students were shunned in high school, and for the first time, they have a group of people they are really social with.”

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