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San Diego celebrates 50th anniversary of Therapeutic Recreation Services

City of San Diego staff looks back on the program that started in 1972 called 'Handicapped Services'.

SAN DIEGO — The city of San Diego's Parks and Recreation Department is celebrating 50-years of inclusion to people in need. In this Zevely Zone, I learned how a special program has helped 25,000 people a year live their best lives. 

Sometimes you have to look back to see how far you've come, which is why city staffers are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Therapeutic Recreation Services.

In 1972, the city of San Diego created a program called Handicapped Services. "Handicapped is not a term we used anymore, very shortly after that it was changed to Disabled Services," said Kristi Fenick who told us that name was later changed to Therapeutic Recreation Services. Kristi is the district manager for the program.  

Credit: Therapeutic Recreation Services

"Come on you guys," said Kristi who gathered some of the program's long-time participants. "Can I get a hug?" I asked. In front of me stood Rachel Goldbaum who has appeared in several Zevely Zone stories. "Third time," smiled Rachel. I told her, "I love making a big deal out of you!"

Credit: Therapeutic Recreation Services

If you think it means a lot to Rachel, you should hear from her mother Brenda. "Oh dear," she said with her eyes filling with tears. "It has just been a life saver. She has been in these programs since she was in elementary school." Rachel is now 47-years old.

The City of San Diego Park & Recreation Therapeutic Recreation Services program provides sports, recreation, leisure and outreach services to people with physical, mental and emotional disabilities. Where else could you have this much fun at a Padre Game? Sean Stevenson started the program when he was 5-years old. I asked him how the program makes him feel. "Safe and happy like I belong here, I like coming here," said Sean who is now 31-years old.

Credit: Therapeutic Recreation Services

Although the Parks and Recreation Department has sixty centers, the goal of the Therapeutic Recreation is to explore, "Everything, everything," said recreation therapist Cheryl Pawlak. She was 17-years old when she started working here. That was 44 years ago! "They are family, that is what it is, they are family," said Cheryl.

"I want to talk especially talk about the pandemic," said mother Diana Rathbun. She told us during COVID-19, her son Mathew never lost his circle of friends.

Credit: Therapeutic Recreation Services

"I love it here, it's like a home to me," said Mathew. Once a year, the program hosts a dinner dance party gala called Harvest Ball. When we watched a video from the event, we spotted a love connection. "It's like going to our high school prom. Oh yeah," said Rachel and Mathew. Turns out, Mathew and Rachel have been dating since 1992. "Mathew is a great guy to me, I have known him for so long, he is the love of my life," said Rachel.

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Services include therapeutic recreation programs and adaptive sports opportunities. These address the special needs of individuals with disabilities who have difficulty accessing and participating in recreation opportunities offered to the general public. The program's name may have changed several times, but their mission remains the same. "Recreation is recreation whether it's today in 2022 or back in 1972 maybe the hair styles are a little different, but recreation is recreation," said Kristi.

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In the past 50 years, Kristi says our community has grown more inclusive; that's something to celebrate San Diego. Under the direction of Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialists, activities and services are designed to maintain or improve the physical, cognitive and social functioning of those who have limitations. The target population is children and adults, ages 3 and up, with any type of disability. Therapeutic Reaction Services is for people off all ages. Past participants have ranged in age from 3 to 103-years-old.

For additional questions about Therapeutic Recreation Services, please call 619-525-8247. For more information click here.

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