Guest Editor, Allegra Velazquez, MPHc, BS-Dietetics and Nutrition
This past June, I received an email from Karlyn Emile from Special Olympics Florida with an opportunity to be an Assistant Nutrition Instructor for the Wellness Program. I obtained a Bachelors in Dietetics and Nutrition because I have a passion for helping and educating others on improving their health. My goal is to help change people’s lives for the better i.e. in terms of developing a healthy lifestyle and improving their overall quality of life. I was involved in projects related to increasing nutritional knowledge. I taught on topics such as making better food choices while incorporating physical activity/exercise. I must admit, however, that I was slightly fearful about this opportunity because I had never worked with individuals with Intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). Over the last few months, my fear has transformed into respect and love.
At the end of my first day at Camp Shriver at the Sandra Delucca Developmental Center, I was instantly at ease. The participants of the wellness and nutrition program were eager to learn about the information on the display board that contained explanations and visuals about calcium, proper hand washing, sunscreen and skincare, and physical activity. I was amazed to discover how much they already knew. Most of them were proudly informing me that they walk, run or play sports almost every day. I even had some of them tell me they know they need to stay away from soda and other high-sugar beverages. In the words of one of the program participants “I tell my mom, NO SODA, only water!” As I taught them about MyPlate and the different food groups, I got satisfaction from hearing their examples about fruits or vegetables they ate over the weekend or how they chose to eat a salad at a restaurant instead of a hamburger and fries.
For people like myself who have never worked with individuals with IDD, my main advice would be this—do not be scared. My initial feeling was fear that was motivated by the fact that I thought that I might not be able to deliver information in a way they could understand. I found some of the participants received information better than others, therefore it required me to think outside the box and incorporate different methods to convey information. Every time I met with the participants, it challenged me to find ways to relay the material in other ways. It was important to ensure that the material was received clearly and effectively.
What confirmed that the participants had grasped the information given is when they came back the following week after a lesson and informed me and my fellow instructors, “I had low-fat cheese and wheat crackers this weekend like I tried in class” or “I walked on the treadmill for 30 minutes.” It is a rewarding feeling and I had a great sense of accomplishment to know they valued and truly grasped what they learned. When working with individuals with IDD information needs to be conveyed using graphics and hands-on activities that allows for participation and a sense of being a part of the material. I discovered that this population is very visual, hands-on, and on occasion material needs to be repeated multiple times. Nothing is more gratifying than seeing the excitement in a participants face when they answer questions correctly and receive praise from their peers.
I learned a lot from this population. The participants of the program have taught me to be more compassionate, a better listener, how to think creatively, and have a great deal of patience. Not only has this been a rewarding experience but I have seen the participants learn a lot of information beyond what they already knew. I feel like my input and that of the other instructors has made an impact because the participants are eager every week to expand their knowledge. I truly believe that the Special Olympics Florida Wellness Program will change the lives of its participants for the better because it has taught them to be healthier individuals and be aware of the role nutrition plays disease prevention.
Unfortunately, it seems that health promotion is overlooked among the IDD population because of other issues that are seen as a “priority. They learned how to make healthier decisions and the passionate feedback we received as instructors lets us know that individuals with IDD want to improve their lifestyle by making health-conscious decisions about food and physical activity.