When Teresa Michalik was hired in April to serve as North Riverside’s new director of parks and recreation, she looked forward to continuing to provide the plethora of services the village already offered — from summer camps to adult travel opportunities. 

However, Michalik also realized there was a segment of the village’s population that the department was not serving — the special needs community. 

“Now that I’m the director here, I actually get to create and bring to life ideas that I’ve had for a while,” Michalik said. “Just to address [this] need is the biggest thing. I can’t imagine being a parent and not having these kinds of outlets, especially being in the field I love so much and knowing how much joy it brings me to bring programs to children. But, knowing that an entire group is left out doesn’t sit well. It was time.”

On Nov. 16, Michalik hosted a forum at the North Riverside Village Commons for community members concerned with the lack of programming available for children and adults with special needs, ranging from autism to Down syndrome. 

Topics raised by attendees at the forum included parents needing to travel to other suburbs in order for their children to attend special programs, the lack of programs in the area available for special needs adults and the frustration that has come with having children turned away from programs in the village due to the lack of resources and specialization. 

“Everybody deserves the socialization and recreation we provide,” Michalik said, who added that now is time for the village to acknowledge those in the area in need of specialized programming. 

The tentative name of the new program is North Riverside Special Recreation — though Michalik said it’s possible the program may run cooperatively with the Riverside Department of Parks and Recreation— and at the meeting Michalik introduced three women with experience and degrees in special education who would serve as programmers and part-time instructors. 

Staff for the new program includes Mary McKinney, a special education teacher in Oak Park; Laura Nevarez, a coordinator for children in after-school programs and teacher in classrooms through middle school; and Kristen Manetti-Milligan, a preschool teacher in Cicero who has worked for the North Riverside Recreation Department for more than 15 years.

The program would be funded through fees paid for by program participants. Though there are special recreation associations the village could have sought to join, Michalik said she wanted programming to be easily available to residents.

“It’s not as convenient as taking classes in your backyard,” said Michalik. “We have the resources. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be getting this done.”

Michalik decided to hold the forum before introducing special programming in order to get a feel for the types of events the community is looking for.

“If you don’t know who you’re specifically gearing these [programs] towards, [the program] is not going to stick,” she said. 

At the forum, attendees completed forms distinguishing what special needs their children had and shared their ideas for potential programs. Over the next few weeks, Michalik says the programmers will analyze the specific needs of those in attendance in order to get a few programs up and running for 2015.

Michalik told the attendees that the program hopes to have some sort of introductory program in place in December.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg just to make sure we’re not biting off more than we can chew,” she added. “The worst thing we can do is overpromise, so we want to make sure we are well-equipped for what we’re offering.”

New programs will be advertised in a special recreation program pamphlet that will be available for students at Komarek School, Riverside District 96 schools and Riverside-Brookfield High School. Additional information for programs will soon be available on the village’s recreation webpage and North Riverside Recreation Facebook page. 

For questions or information about the special recreation program, contact the North Riverside Parks and Recreation Office at 708-442-5515 or email Michalik at teresam@northriverside-il.org.

Bob Uphues contributed to this report.

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