HISRA provides opportunities for individuals with disabilities and special needs to enjoy recreational activities and discover their potential.
In spite of its dismal financial position, Illinois remains a leader in parks and recreation—and Peoria is an area rich in social services. One result is the Heart of Illinois Special Recreation Association (HISRA), a cooperative extension of four local park districts: Morton, Peoria, Chillicothe and Washington. Our mission: to provide quality recreation programming and inclusion services to individuals with disabilities and special needs.
Programming the Mission
In the 1960s, state legislation was passed that allowed park districts to partner with one another. Under such a partnership, a special recreation tax could be levied to support recreation programming and inclusion services for individuals with disabilities. In 1988, HISRA was founded as a collaborative effort between the Morton and Peoria park districts to extend recreational opportunities for individuals of all disabilities and special needs in those communities. In the last seven years, the Chillicothe and Washington park districts have been added to the HISRA umbrella, expanding its geographic footprint.
HISRA’s programming covers a wide array of activities and events for individuals of all ages. Programs, camps and events are available seasonally and can be found in the brochures mailed to participants. While the programs change each season, mainstay programs include:
- Youth programming-day camp programs, including Parent’s Night Out respite programming and other special events;
- Special Olympics team and individual sports, including track and field, aquatics, softball, golf, basketball and bowling;
- Peoria Wildcats wheelchair basketball;
- Access Steam, which provides opportunities for individuals with disabilities to experience the Steamboat Classic;
- FOCUS adult day program;
- Teen and adult evening and weekend social programming and events, including dinner out, local sports competitions, volunteer opportunities, etc.
HISRA makes it possible for the more than 1,500 individuals it serves to grow personally, connect with their community and discover their potential.
As budgets have tightened while parents advocate for community inclusion, HISRA has experienced much growth over the last decade. Its day camps have increased registration numbers by more than 200 percent, while it provides an increasing number of inclusion support hours each year in each member district’s recreation programming.
In response to decreased day program services at local social service providers, HISRA’s FOCUS adult day program was born in 2008. It pairs recreation activities, socialization, community access, fitness and volunteering to increase independent living skills and increase quality of life. In 2010, HISRA partnered with the Illinois Valley Striders to create Access Steam, an initiative to include runners and walkers with disabilities in training for the Steamboat Classic. Participants are paired with mentors to train for the two-mile, four-mile or 15K race.
HISRA created the Peoria Wildcats wheelchair basketball program for individuals with lower-body physical disabilities. The first of its kind in central Illinois, the Wildcats compete in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, traveling all over the Midwest to compete in tournaments. HISRA then worked with the Illinois High School Association to bring the IHSA State Wheelchair Basketball Tournament to Peoria. Among the first of its kind in the country, this tournament crowns a state wheelchair basketball champion each year at the Peoria Civic Center during the March Madness Experience (MME).
During the MME, HISRA cosponsors Access the March Madness Experience, as well as a Special Needs Community Resource Fair. The games of the MME are adapted and staffed with volunteers so they can be enjoyed by participants of all abilities, while the fair is the largest of its kind in this area—a one-stop shop for families in need of services and professionals to learn about resources.
Outcomes and Impact
HISRA’s story is perhaps best told through the lives of the people it has affected. Matt Barrett is a 40-year-old with a developmental disability who lives fairly independently and works at the Peoria Production Shop. He has been involved in HISRA’s Special Olympics programs for some time, participating in basketball and track.
In track, Matt stuck to short distances, as he was not a big fan of running; he mostly enjoyed the competition and camaraderie. When Access Steam was born, HISRA staff encouraged him to get involved, but he scoffed at the idea of running four miles. After some more prodding, however, he caved and signed up for Access Steam… and he hasn’t stopped running since.
In 2015, Matt completed Steamboat’s difficult 15K race, and last October, he completed his first half-marathon. Through all this, he has seen innumerable changes in his life. There have been the expected quality-of-life changes, such as weight loss and better overall health, but more important are the friendships and support system he has gained. Matt is currently training for his first marathon in October.
Seventeen-year-old Jimmy is a happy young man with autism, who loves tractors and could spend all day on the farm—but he struggles in school. For the past five years, he has not attended school for a full day, yet he thrives at HISRA’s Camp Free to Be, which he attends for nine weeks in the summer.
For Meg and Alina—two sisters who have been participating in Special Olympics programs for two years—HISRA is a family affair. Their pre-teen brothers quickly took to volunteering for the sports in which they were competing, and the whole family hasn’t missed a moment of the sisters’ competition, celebrating not only their successes, but the success of each HISRA team member.
“HISRA has had a tremendous impact on our entire family,” says one parent. “My daughters have learned skills, formed friendships and increased their self-confidence. When they succeed, I see their HISRA volunteers celebrate as if they themselves just crossed the finish line or bowled a strike. There is a certain comfort and peace that comes with attending an event through HISRA. I know my daughters will be treated with respect, supported in a safe environment, and valued for all they can contribute.
“In addition… my sons have volunteered as coaches, which has helped them more fully appreciate the potential, ability and value of all people. It has also given [them]… a group of role models and mentors in their fellow HISRA volunteers.”
HISRA is a unique type of agency—a special recreation association that provides programs and services to individuals with disabilities and special needs. Illinois is the only state with legislation enabling such a collaborative effort among park districts. HISRA is committed to providing opportunities for each individual to enjoy recreation activities in the least restrictive environment possible. For more information, call (309) 691-1929 or visit hisra.org. iBi
Katie Van Cleve is Executive Director of the Heart of Illinois Special Recreation Association.