Magical moments

UGA students learn skills while helping children with disabilities improve their motor function

Magical moments

Tristan Bass, 4, swims in the pool with Taylor Davis from Lilburn at the Pediatric Exercise and Motor Development Clinic at the Ramsey Center.

In any given night of the week, the Ramsey Student Center is packed with UGA students working out and socializing. But on Tuesday nights, something magical happens in a far corner of the recreation center.

In a lower level gym and in the pool, several UGA students work one-on-one with local children with disabilities, helping them to improve their physical and motor functioning.

For nine weeks each semester, students in kinesiology professor Michael Horvat’s adapted physical education class participate in the Pediatric Exercise and Motor Development Clinic (PEMDC), which is designed to help both the students and the children.

“My main focus is to provide the experience for these students that children with disabilities can learn and become members of society,” says Horvat, who has directed the clinic for the past 25 years. “The program is also a community service to provide opportunities for children with disabilities to develop physical, motor and functional skills.”

Originally developed by professor emeritus of physical education Ernie Bundschuh in 1975, Horvat took over the clinic in 1985 and modified the format to use the latest exercise and motor development techniques. It serves Athens area residents, beginning at age 2, with all degrees of functioning and a variety of developmental issues ranging from Down syndrome to neurological and sensory problems and even autism.

If you’ve heard of the clinic, it might be because it’s one of three beneficiaries of the annual UGA Countdown to Kickoff—a July fundraising event created in 2006 by former UGA football stars and National Football League players Matt and Jon Stinchcomb, along with David Greene. The event allows Bulldog fans to take pictures, get autographs or catch passes with some of their favorite UGA players in the NFL, legends from the past and current players. 

Several former UGA athletes have participated in the clinic as students over the years. When Matt Stinchcomb (BA ’98) visited the clinic, it made such an impression on him that he wanted to contribute to the clinic’s survival and growth.

“What impressed me was how effective the program is,” Stinchcomb says. “It benefits the children who participate in it, as well as prepares UGA students who are considering careers in which they’ll work with children with disabilities. It reaches beyond the classroom and has a real-world effect on children who have few opportunities for such development.”

“The kids don’t view the students as clinicians or therapists, they view them as friends and that’s what makes this so effective. They don’t realize that as they play basketball or swim in the pool they’re discovering that they’re actually capable of doing a lot more physically than they knew they could do, and the UGA students are discovering that right along with them. That may be the most special aspect of it—they’re both kind of in discovery of what they can really do.”

Horvat is raising money to sustain the clinic even after he retires. He hopes to endow two graduate assistantships for students who plan a career working with students with disabilities. He also would like to fund a professorship to work with public school teachers and area agencies that deal with human disabilities.

Parents of disabled children who attend say that its contribution to the community is priceless.

“When my son was diagnosed with sensory integration disorder, I was like ‘What are we going to do?’” says Jennifer Givan, whose son Jon has attended the clinic for two years. “He can come here and get what he needs at a reasonable cost.”

At the start of each nine-week session, a kinesiology student from UGA is paired with a child. With Horvat’s supervision, the student develops a personalized activity plan based on the child’s individual needs as determined through an initial assessment by the clinic and information from parents, doctors and teachers.

Each student works with the same child for the entire session, providing one-on-one attention during activities in the gym and the pool. Gym activities include playing catch with a ball, balancing on a platform, dance and strength training. In the pool, the advanced children do laps in the deep end, while the less developed children work primarily on their movements and motor developments using weights, noodles and kick boards. The clinic is designed to facilitate functional skills that the children can use in their home and school settings.

UGA students build the skills they’ll need to work with special populations in the future.

“The clinic is important, as it puts into practice the information that students in kinesiology have learned in the classroom,” exercise science major Sara Samchok says. “In addition, this class connects students from the university with the community.”

Over the course of the nine weeks, the students also develop special relationships with the children.

“My favorite part about the clinic is being able to build a bond with the children that I work with, as well as seeing them improve,” says Michael Mansfield, an exercise science major. “When we meet each week and continue working on our activity plans, we are able to see the improvement. For me, it is rewarding just knowing that I am able to help them.”

The close interaction with the UGA students is equally beneficial to the children, parents say.

“He responds better here than at home,” says Erin Murray, who has brought her son, Jack, to the clinic for the past three years. “I think it’s because it is someone they look up to, and they will do more for them than they will for an adult in their home setting. The kids just love having another young person interested in them and wanting to do things with them. It makes all the difference in how they respond.”

The children usually are referred to the clinic by their doctor or school, but Horvat also visits local organizations to spread the word about the work he and his students are doing.

Murray learned about the clinic through Babies Can’t Wait, a state program for children up to age 3 with special needs. She promptly enrolled Jack, who was only 20 months old at the time and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

When Jack began his first session at the clinic, he was unable to walk. Nine weeks later he was walking with a push toy.

“I was very surprised,” Murray says. “The doctors were telling us that he would walk, but there was no telling when that would happen. He had just recently gotten diagnosed, so that was just really a good day.”

During a recent session in Jack’s third year with the clinic, he walked down stairs on his own, reaching another developmental milestone.

Irene Cordell moved her family from Dublin, Ga., to Athens in 1983 so her daughter, Jenny, then a nonverbal autistic 5-year-old, could be close to services she couldn’t find in Dublin. Jenny has been working with the clinic for the past 27 years. Cordell and Horvat joke that he and Jenny will retire together.

“What makes the clinic different is the warmth and the caring of Michael Horvat and the people that he has helping him,” Cordell says, “as well as his uncanny ability to match students with the attendees.”

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About the Author

—Genevieve di Leonardo is a master’s student in public relations and a former publications assistant in the College of Education.