Shepherd’s Team River Runner teaches kayaking to autistic children
A special group of kayakers delightedly splashed around in the Wellness Center pool during a recent session of Shepherd University’s Team River Runner chapter (TRR). The group included an 11-year-old autistic girl and her family who came to take a kayaking lesson from TRR veterans and volunteers.
TRR is a national organization that serves veterans in recovery from combat by teaching them therapeutic and recreational kayaking. This year, Shepherd’s chapter partnered with two academic departments-education and health, physical education, recreation and sport-to offer therapeutic kayaking to children who are on the autism spectrum and their families through a local nonprofit organization called Eastern Panhandle Indigo Children (EPIC).
Tracy Seffers, registrar and TRR Shepherd chapter coordinator, said it makes a lot of sense for veterans to help the children enjoy the water in kayaks.
“Children on the autism spectrum have particular needs in terms of processing time, breaking down processes, and time to acquire a skill,” Seffers said. “Veterans are very familiar with that, both in terms of their military training and also in recovery programs. They’re very methodical, so they’ve been in this mode of breaking down a process, understanding it and teaching it to someone else. That is a very good and effective way of helping these autistic kids learn.”
Bonnie Pretre, president and founder of EPIC, brought her four autistic sons to one of the TRR sessions.
“It was a very good experience and they learned so much,” she said. “They were excited and they’re still talking about it.”
Pretre said working with TRR and Shepherd students gives the children a safe and controlled environment where they can learn to kayak and enjoy the water.
“It seems like the kids who are on the autism spectrum gravitate toward water because of the healing properties water can have for people with sensory disorders,” Pretre said. “There are all kinds of benefits-it is something that’s recreational, so they get exercise, and they can enhance their balance and mobility.”
Pretre said it’s also great that the entire family can participate.
“I’m hoping we’ll be able to get more kids and their families in the water because anytime a family can do something recreational together it brings them closer,” she said.
The TRR-EPIC partnership came about because Pretre invited Melissa Hall, assistant professor of recreation studies, to speak at an EPIC meeting. Since coming to Shepherd in 2015, Hall has been working to build more relationships with community organizations that cater to the special needs population. Her goal is to give her students experience working with the kind of children they’ll teach when they graduate.
“It’s easy to teach the theoretical stuff in the classroom,” Hall said. “But nothing helps the student learn more than to be hands on and working with the population.”