Laughter, success reigns at second annual WCU expo for individuals with disabilities

Robbie Mintz, seated, enjoys a crafts moment at the second annual WCU LifeSpan Expo.

Robbie Mintz, seated, enjoys a crafts moment at the second annual WCU LifeSpan Activities Expo.

For 30 patrons of the Waynesville center of LifeSpan, a non-profit organization serving children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, an activities expo at Western Carolina University was an ideal field trip.

The culmination of a service learning project by students in a “Psychological Perceptivities of Developmental Disabilities” class taught by Ellen Sigler, the expo consisted of hands-on arts and craft projects, some edible and all custom designed for LifeSpan patrons.

Robbie Mintz, aided by his sister Ravonda Killian, said he was making it a point to do everything offered at the expo and even do some things twice, if time allowed. “This is fun,” he said. “I like people. I like talking to people. I like meeting new people. It’s fun coming to Western. You have to tell everybody this is great. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

The second annual event was held in the Illusions of the A.K. Hinds University Center on Thursday, Nov. 17. The 45 WCU students involved had developed interactive activities though classwork and research, with guidelines provided by Sigler. A series of 10 stations manned by the students lined the room.

“I think it is important for the students to understand these are individuals and a part of our community,” Sigler said. “There are varying needs and different degrees of understanding and awareness for them, just as there are for us. This expo help students understand diversity. For many of these students, it is the first time they have met individuals with special needs.”

The expo is a service learning project by students in a class by Ellen Sigler (left).

The expo is the result of a service learning project by students in a class by Ellen Sigler (left).

Each interaction proved to be different, student Savannah Watson observed. “One woman put her hand on the person helping, who was ‘doing’ the craft with her. That was her way of participating,” Watson said. “The human touch made her a part of it, though she clearly couldn’t have done it otherwise. And that’s what it’s all about. Participation takes on many forms.”

Participation in many forms aligns with LifeSpan’s goals to provide opportunities for children and adults with disabilities by providing enrichment opportunities. Services offered include residential services, day support, developmental therapy, vocational rehabilitation, personal assistance and personal care services.

“Seeing the excitement on their faces when they’ve accomplished a craft is gratifying,” said student Megan McAllister, helping with the creation of “rain sticks” consisting of cardboard tubes, aluminum foil and decals that made tinkling sounds when shaken. The goal was to utilize motor skills and imagination. “The finished product reflects them, their choices and expresses it to others. It’s artistic, just fantastic – and we’re getting as much out of this as they are, I think.”

At the “turkey treats” station, which had no actual turkey but plenty of graham crackers, Nutella, chocolate, candy corn and baby marshmallows were available to make decorated cookies that could be consumed or displayed. “We looked for seasonal items and foods that would work for a sensory experience,” said student Stephen Propst. “You can make something tasty and it can be decorated to fit personality and tastes, and it fits this time of year.”

As events wound down, clean-up began and LifeSpan patrons were escorted to awaiting vans for the trip back to the Waynesville center, Sigler said she considered the afternoon to be an all-around success in service learning.

“We all, hopefully, come away with an understanding even though some might need accommodations and sometimes modifications to participate, that everybody has a right to be an active part of our community,” she said.