We have all been through some sort of trying time during this pandemic, from staying home, staying six feet apart from each other, washing our hands consistently, following city and state COVID-19 guidelines, making sure our kids and families remain safe – not to mention the families who know firsthand the devastating conditions this pandemic can bring. But I never stopped to think about the special people in our communities who, from the instant they were born, go through trying moments every day of their lives.
Getting to know the Capable Kids Foundation and recognizing what it achieves was quite inspiring. Co-founder and physical therapist Melanie Watson and Executive Director Sofia Peña both spoke about the program and what they do to motivate the kids they help throughout the year.
The organization’s mission is to improve the quality of life for children with all types of disabilities. The idea first started when therapists and staff from Milestones Therapeutic Associates, where Watson works, decided they wanted to organize activities that were fun, creative, teachable, and inclusive for their patients. “We wanted to help our kids have something to do in their spare time to make their lives better, and their parents spoke with us about the difficult times they experienced themselves making sure their children were included in everyday activities,” said Watson. “Parents mentioned how their kids go to school, come home, and go to therapy, but that was it. They told us their kids did not have friends, they did not participate in extracurricular activities, and did not go out because it was a hassle. People sometimes gave them looks so they just didn’t want to deal with it.”
To Watson and the founding members, this was unacceptable. They began searching for ways to make their patients’ lives better. For years before the pandemic, the Capable Kids Foundation planned, organized, and coordinated all kinds of sports events and social activities to help the kids become active and involved, and to be included in activities where they usually felt uncomfortable. The organization serves anyone with disabilities who attends their programs or events. At one of its last events before the pandemic, they organized Prom 2020, and 200 teens and young adults and their parents attended with over 220 volunteers.
Through their experience working with kids at Milestones, Watson, Karen Snyman, Desiree French, Andy Del Fierro, and Arturo Pecina, all founders of Capable Kids, were able to utilize their skills sets to make sure everything was accessible and all activities could be adapted to hearing, visual, and mobility impairment needs.
The sports events allowed children to have physically fun interaction – now the parents could sit back and relax, even if for a moment. “The kids need 24-hour care, so this suddenly gave parents much needed R&R and time for themselves,” said Watson. “It became obvious play opportunities needed to be expanded throughout the community, through inclusive playground design.”
“Capable Kids designed a park in partnership with Hidalgo County Pct. 2 and Valley View ISD. Hidalgo County Commissioner Eddie Cantu found the resources and made it happen beyond what we ever expected,” said Watson. The park, Pct. 2 Inclusive Park located at 3000 E. Dicker Road, is one of the organization’s biggest accomplishments.
“It has really cool inclusive equipment and provides accessible fun – it allows all kids to play together and have a really great time,” added Watson.
“We then worked with the City of McAllen Miracle Field at the city’s Youth Baseball Complex located at the corner of Auburn Ave. and 29th Street. It has rubber surfacing and is completely wheelchair accessible. The City, its Parks & Recreation Department, and H-E-B all got involved to get this done.” The team patiently awaits the first t-ball game at Miracle Field. “It’s going to be so good to see all the parents and kids out there having the time of their lives,” said Watson. “We hope there will be representation from all our community out watching the kids playing and enjoying what other children get to enjoy.” Capable Kids is now working with McAllen ISD to build an inclusive playground next to the Miracle Field.
Even before the pandemic, Capable Kids would organize events such as prom, fundraising galas, physical activities, crafts, sign language classes, and music, but for now they concentrate on doing activities via Zoom where they can see and interact with their families safely.
A way Capable Kids staff kept the kids engaged after events were cancelled due to COVID-19 was by asking them to participate in a virtual talent show, engaging their families and putting out a call for talent. The children showcased their abilities by dancing, singing, performing gymnastics or magic tricks, playing sports, cheering, and painting. Parents proudly submitted videos to display their children’s abilities.
“Now we get to see them whenever we want because they are online in this video, and we watch whenever we want,” said Peña. “The kids are remaining active, engaged, full of energy, and positive, and remain part of us. We have kept in touch with them all along even if it is virtually.”
“They all display their beautiful human spirit as they perform,” Peña said. “How can you not love them?”
Capable Kids has serviced countless amazing kids with non-specific disabilities and their families in the Rio Grande Valley in the past five years, to bring an awareness that inclusion plays a huge role now, and that families can find ways and resources to help their children have brighter lives. Most of the funding that Capable Kids raises throughout the year goes right back to help the children. The organization strives to build a network that is part of the community for individuals of all ages and their families and to encourage people to include those with disabilities in everyday society. The program is run mostly by volunteers.
Five years ago, these topics were not a large part of community conversations, but the accessible inclusion parks have brought attention to the cause. Local leaders recognize the need to bring these types of improvements to the forefront. “Schools built long ago don’t have these new amenities. Now schools are understanding that inclusion is especially important, and they are willing to make changes even if it is with little steps at a time,” said Peña. “Wherever there is an existing park, we are blessed to have been included, and we are grateful to have therapists willing to work to make sure the parks have what is needed.”
In June, the organization participated in a new event. Capable Kids had Activity Boxes delivered to all participating families with activities and items for disabled children. The items in the boxes were used by kids with a wide variety of needs on various levels. Parents were also able to request add-ons to make the kits useful, and most importantly, entertaining. They had an online 5th Birthday Zoom Party on June 27 to include activities with items in their boxes, and entertainment including a presentation from the Glady’s Porter Zoo.
“Because of this job, my heart is full every day. The kids are just all love all the time, it is a riot,” said Peña. “When we finally reunite with them, it is going to be a grand party. We miss them. They have become family.”