Everyday tasks such as listening to music, talking to a friend or just simply taking a walk are daily functions that many take for granted; however, these everyday occurrences bring immense joy to the residents of the Swann Special Care Center in Champaign.
Since 1975, the Swann Center has been a home for medically fragile children and adults as old as 21 with developmental disabilities. Many of the residents are non-verbal and must adopt or use alternative forms of communication. Others are non-ambulatory and must use specially designed wheelchairs. According to Leonora Byram, activities coordinator and volunteer director of the Swann Center, the facility has 118 residents today.
Inside the center, nurses rush to accompany and provide service to each resident. Because many of the residents require a high degree of medical care, Byram said it is hard for the staff to also provide an active social life for the residents.
That's when the volunteers step in.
"We have our staff, and they are busy doing the direct care. (Volunteers) are so important to our residents," said Kym Halberstadt, executive director of the Swann Center. "Volunteering is an additional support system so our residents can have a social life."
"In the morning, if it is cold outside, our volunteers help dress the residents in coats and hats, and during the summer, they assist the residents getting on the buses for transportation,” Byram said.
Byram said the residents don't have family visits on a regular basis. Often, volunteers fill this void. They build relationships with the residents and take them for walks and talks.
"They (residents) need someone to take them on walks, someone to talk with them and someone to be a friend," Byram said. "A lot of the residents’ families cannot come everyday, and the volunteers take over that position."
Volunteers get to express their creativity with the residents quite often. According to Byram, the residents are very fond of art. Students and local artists frequently volunteer their talents and help set up art programs and assist the residents in creating art.
"The volunteers are so fun, full of energy and creative,” Halberstadt said.
Byram also stated that volunteers can assist with day training, school or the evening activities at the center.
"Our residents love music, and we do a lot of karaoke,” Byram said. "We do community acting, take them shopping at Wal-Mart or the mall, and we go to movies."
According to Halberstadt, volunteers come from a wide range of demographics.
"We have people who bring their children, families, college students and on up,” Halberstadt said.
Cheryl Light Shriner, a professor with the University's Special Education Department, teaches a course titled Introduction to Intellectual Disabilities. The course requires a community experience component, and students can choose to spend a few hours at the Swann Special Care Center.
"The students who choose to go to Swann assist residents with a recreational activity for about two hours. Since the students in my course often have no experience with individuals with multiple disabilities, I accompany each small group of six to eight students,” Shriner wrote in an email.
Shriner wrote that the residents are provided interaction that greatly enriches their day.
"Volunteers can provide the attention and interaction to the residents that is always needed,” Shriner wrote.
The experience also benefits the volunteers as well.
"I believe my college students enjoy the experience and are able to reflect on it and compare it with their own personal life experiences and information from the course. We discuss quality of life and what every person wants and needs to be fulfilled, regardless of abilities, disabilities, or life circumstances,” Shriner wrote.
Byram stated that various local organizations also pitch-in to help residents at the center. Members of Holy Cross Catholic Church in Champaign perform a church service every Saturday. Members of the church perform songs and read scripture to the residents. A campus service fraternity, Alpha Phi Omega, has members that frequently volunteer at the center, too.
Many organizations outside of Champaign also contribute their time and talents for the residents of the Swann center. Byram stated that in 1996, Forty Martyrs Catholic Church, located in Tuscola, started giving gifts to all the residents. These gifts consist of movies, clothes, gift cards and toys. Today, the church still donates.
Halberstadt expressed that the volunteers really help the residents have quality of life.
"Swann Center is a very unique and wonderful place. It is a place of joy. Our residents are happy, and they have the best quality of life that they can have,” Halberstadt said.