By Nancy Van Valkenburg; Standard-Examiner staff
OGDEN -- James Zagrodnik knows what it feels like to be a child with no way to voice his feelings or fit in with peers.
Zagrodnik, now a Weber State University assistant professor of Health and Human Performance Department, had a learning disability that prevented him from talking clearly until age 10.
"I felt like a human ventriloquist dummy," Zagrodnik said. "Except I would move my mouth, and people couldn't understand the words coming out."
Zagroknik overcame his speaking disability, possibly related to his severe dyslexia, through years of speech therapy. Now he is using his knowledge of the human body to provide disabled children with a place to play as they hone their motor skills, their cognitive skills and their social interactions.
His group, new this fall, is Children's Adaptive Physical Education Society! It's called CAPES!, for short, since Zagrodnik likes the idea that all children can enhance their own personal powers and become their own superheroes. The hour-long, Tuesday night sessions are held in a gym and the pool of WSU's Swenson Gym.
The 23 children registered, age 5 through 12, get a chance for exercise to increase their mobility and range, to socialize without harsh judgements, and to work on mental focus and other cognitive skills. Among the kids' challenges are autism, intellectual disabilities and developmental delays, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, Tourette's syndrome, sensory issues and Fragile X syndrome.
CAPES! kids work with five WSU students studying in Zagroknik's department and 20 in the Jerry & Vickie Moyes College of Education. Natalie Williams, an assistant professor in teachers' education, collaborated with Zagrodnik to design and run the weekly clinic.
"His adaptive P.E. students are focusing on motor skills, and my education students are focusing more on cognitive and social skills," Williams said. "It makes a great program to address all the needs of the students. It's a fantastic program that benefits Weber State students and the kids."
Teachers' education student Alyssa Askew, 24, of Layton, said she has learned a lot, just four weeks into the 10-week session.
"It's been a great experience for me," Askew said. "I've never had the opportunity to work with any students with disabilities, and I know I will have students with disabilities. I've seen that everyone can learn, it's just finding the right level to reach them, and the right modification of the activity."
Georgia Tittensor, of North Ogden, said she has seen some changes in daughter Gia, 6, who has autism.
"She is learning to work with a lot of different people," Georgia Tittensor said. "She's learning good adaptive skills and motor skills, and she really enjoys the swimming half of the program."
Cami Royster, South Ogden, is mother of Kenley, 8, who has epilepsy.
"She really enjoys the gym play," Royster said, of her daughter. "And I know they've been working really hard to get her into the pool. She doesn't like the feel of the water."
Askew said she's seen improvements in her assigned students' social skills, and she knows seeing other positive changes may take longer. Zagrodnik said every child's time table and potential is different.
"Really, our mission or our goal not to make miraculous changes," he said. "We just want to help each child become as independent as possible. During a 10-session program, some kids might have tremendous leaps and others might have small steps. Some might not have any positive movement toward independence. Some have pretty significant disabilities, and we don't know if we are reaching them yet. It takes time."
Zagrodnik said he's already got parents on the waiting list for the next semester's session. Ten sessions cost $25, which goes for space rental and lifeguards, he said. To contact Zagrodnik, call 801-626-7084 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Zagrodnik believes people view disabled children as more limited than they are.
"We develop perceptions that people can't do things, which creates barriers," he said. "Typically, we restrict people with disabilities way too much. For the most part, they don't appreciate it, they don't enjoy it, and they don't learn as much."
Zagrodnik's own childhood insecurities drove him to adopt self-destructive behavior, he said. By fifth grade, he had friends who accepted him, but who were underage drinkers, also involved with other dangerous activities. In high school, three of his friends were killed in a car accident while high on drugs.
The shock of that event made Zagrodnik re-examine his own life, he said. Zagrodnik turned his passion for sports into a successful academic career focused on how the brain and muscles work together.
"It took me a long time to be comfortable with who I was and what I could do," he said. "I had to realize life doesn't have to be this miserable. We are all meaningful. We can all learn. We should all be valued."