After years of tinkering with ways to provide recreation service for families whose children have disabilities, it appears the village of Riverside will seek to become a full-fledged member of a special recreation association, following the footsteps of North Riverside, Brookfield and almost every neighboring suburban community.

More than 30 residents turned out Feb. 15 to implore elected officials to fund special recreation, and after almost two hours of discussion the village board indicated they will do just that.

Trustees instructed Recreation Director Ron Malchiodi to provide more information regarding comparative costs and services provided by two special recreation agencies in particular – the West Suburban Special Recreation Association (WSSRA) and the South East Association for Special Parks And Recreation (SEASPAR).

Brookfield has been a member of SEASPAR since 2007. North Riverside joined WSSRA late in 2017.

Malchiodi told the Landmark that he plans on having that information available to elected officials by March, though it’s unclear just how quickly trustees will pull the trigger and select an agency to partner with. But, they made it clear it’s going to happen.

“I don’t think anybody has to convince anybody [on the board of trustees] that we won’t offer these services,” said Village President Ben Sells. “The question is how.”

The membership costs for WSSRA and SEASPAR differ quite a bit, not only the annual contribution from the municipality to the agency, but in fees charged to families who participate in the programs and program locations.

For example, to join WSSRA, it would cost the village of Riverside $77,000 annually (after a three-year gradual buy-in period), while SEASPAR would cost about $45,000. Even at $77,000, however, the cost represents less than 1 percent of the village’s annual operating expenditures.

But WSSRA’s program locations in places like Berwyn, Cicero, North Riverside, Forest Park, Oak Park and River Forest are generally closer to Riverside than SEASPAR’s locations, which include Brookfield, LaGrange and Western Springs, but also Lisle, Darien, Woodridge, Lemont, Westmont and Clarendon Hills.

“I think location is a huge factor,” said Trustee Wendell Jisa. “Building friendships in these programs is what I think is most important for us as a community to try and deliver to these families.”

Different agencies also provide different levels of service, such as door-to-door transportation – which WSSRA provides for a nominal fee but SEASPAR doesn’t — which can be make-or-break resources for parents of special-needs children.

Since 2015, the Riverside Department of Parks and Recreation has offered special recreation programming through an association called Gateway, which doesn’t require municipal memberships.

But parents who have used those services have complained that many of the programs are located in places like Elmhurst and Burr Ridge, isolating Riverside families and providing no real way for children or adults to forge lasting friendships. Some complained of wait lists of up to two years for programs like horseback riding and travel times can be deal-breakers.

“Transportation is often a major barrier to access of programs,” said Riverside resident Tony Perry, the father of a special needs child who is now in fifth grade at Central School. “Transportation that doesn’t reach into our community and programs in Elmhurst and Burr Ridge don’t work for us.”

Parents of children with special needs told the board that the time had simply come for special recreation services to be provided in a comprehensive, convenient way.

“I want all of my kids to feel a place of belonging in Riverside,” said Katie Gregory, the mom of two children with disabilities, who added that the need for such resources will extend into her children’s adulthoods.

“I want to live here for the rest of my life, but the reality is I’m going to have a son that will likely live with me until through at least part of his adulthood,” she said. “And I can’t do that if it’s a community that really can’t embrace him and support his needs.” 

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