On a Friday afternoon in late September, Matt Frye is managing a group of ten students from Somersworth High School and five students from the University of New Hampshire. All of the students are chatty, excited, anxious, and ready to go… Today is for apple picking. What could be better?
Matt, a certified recreation therapist, coordinates Northeast Passage’s recreational therapy in schools program. He works in local schools to ensure equal opportunities for students with physical and developmental disabilities. To put it simply, this particular program brings this group of students into the community to show them doable options for recreation, while teaching them skills to be independent. The UNH students are studying recreational therapy and, under Matt’s supervision, will be working with the Somersworth students all semester to gain real world experience. They’ll be paired 1:1 with the high school students and work with them on a therapy treatment plan.
The Somersworth students are teenagers first and that’s how Matt treats them. They laugh and joke as one of their classmates is unloaded from Northeast Passage’s wheelchair lift van. They wear Patriots jerseys and Red Sox caps. They chat with the UNH students about their summer, the gossip at school, and their friend (and past member of the group) who went off to community college. The new students this year huddle with each other and figure out where they fit in to the group. They all eye the giant pumpkins on display, the tractor hay ride pulling into the parking lot and the groups of small children with their teachers. It’s hot and hazy and they’re glad to be out of the classroom.
It’s not all fun and games though. Matt has a mission, just as he does everyday with every student he sees. He blends a fun afternoon with friends with serious goals that each student needs to work on.
Today’s goals: Get to know each other and the UNH students, manage your time and make quick, good decisions. With a short time to pick apples, Matt makes sure each student stays near to someone with a cell phone or a watch. It’s up to them to be back at the meeting place at 1:00. He’s not babysitting.
Now, for the challenge: Each student has four stickers labeled with their name. They get to bring home only four apples from the 100 acre farm.
“You’re going home with four of the prettiest apples you can find. Make smart decisions! Pick good apples! I’m not messing around,” Matt says with a smile. Questions come up – what if there’s an apple that’s too high to reach? The group comes to the consensus that, in that case, it’s best to just pick another apple.
As the apple picking ensues, the UNH students divide themselves among the group. They help reach apples for the students who use wheelchairs. They guide the others to some of the trees beyond the first row. Before long, everyone is comparing apples and making their decisions. Some are done in record time, while others compare and spend time picking their perfect four apples. Some debate between five or six, ultimately picking just four.
Matt circles the group for a final debriefing and he tells each student to take a few seconds and tell why their apple is the best. The students are clearly nervous to speak in front of the group (again, all part of Matt’s plan). As the circle of apple comparing is complete and the students are chatting, Matt walks away from the group. He looks at his watch. He waits. The students are talking when, all of a sudden, there’s a chorus, “Matt! It’s 1:00! It’s time to go!”
They’ve succeeded at today’s mission.
Before they load into the vans, Matt asks what the group would like to do next week.
“Let’s hit the bowling alley!” one of the boys says.
“Yessss!” they all reply.
“I love it,” says Matt.
They load into the vans and get ready to head back to school. The boys are in the back, ready to sleep all the way back to the high school and the girls are up front so they can control the radio. Lady Gaga blares out of the open windows and Matt backs the van out of the parking lot.
It’s all in a day’s work.
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