SRU after-school program helps children with special needs get active


Jacob working with Drew

From right, Drew MacIsaac, a 9-year-old from Grove City, is instructed by Slippery Rock University student Jacob Brush as part of the the University’s Kids In Action after-school program for children with disabilities.

April 22, 2024

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — An after-school, physical activity program hosted at Slippery Rock University is breaking barriers for children with special needs and simultaneously providing experiential learning opportunities for SRU students. The Kids In Action program recently completed its 15th year at SRU, leaving its mark on the participants and facilitators alike.

Jacob Brush, a senior health and physical education major from Murrysville, was ready to drop out of college three years ago and become a certified personal trainer. At the time, he was taking an Introduction to Adapted Physical Activity class and was asked to volunteer for Kids In Action. He agreed to try it for four weeks. Something clicked.

"Working with kids with disabilities is passion I didn't know I had," said Brush, who has remained with the Kids In Action ever since, starting as a volunteer, then a student mentor, and serving as this year's program coordinator. "It made me find a career in teaching and I've grown so much through this experience. It adds a dimension to what I bring to the table when I am applying for jobs, but, ultimately, I do it because I know how much it means to the kids who are coming to these programs."

During the last eight weeks of the semester, 15 participants attended weekly hourlong sessions at SRU's Aebersold Recreation Center. Almost all participants have an intellectual or developmental disability, such as autism spectrum disorder, but the program is inclusive of all children with special needs. They engage in physical activities and sports adapted for them, in both the gymnasium and the swimming pool, while developing motor skills and interacting with SRU student volunteers and mentors.

"I know a big issue with kids who have disabilities is not getting the recommended 60 minutes of activity," Brush said. "Being a part of a program that provides that means the world to them and to me. That's a win-win."

Kids in Action is offered each semester and is free and open to families withspecial needs children ages 5-12 and their siblings.

Matt MacIsaac has been bringing his son, Drew, 9, to Kids In Action for four years and has benefited from opportunities that he would not otherwise have. Drew has developed a tight bond with the SRU students, especially Brush.

Student playing

"Having something geared toward kids with special needs or different abilities has been great," Matt MacIsaac said. "Typical kids who are Drew's age are on a different level and play at a faster pace, but this gives him an opportunity to work with someone one-on-one or with other kids and develop some skills, whether its social or athletic skills -- and it's fun. He loves to swim and play basketball and since we started coming here all he wants to do at home is shoot hoops."

Dallas Jackson, associate professor of physical and health education, created Kids In Action in 2009, recognizing a need for special needs children who might not otherwise have the opportunity to be active, whether in physical education classes offered in their school district or organized sports programs in their community.

"There are barriers for kids with disabilities to get these experiences," Jackson said. "Kids in Action is one of the ways that we're meeting the needs here in our community. We also have our students from different classes who are doing wonderful work. We have a multitiered process where student leaders who are developing and implementing the programming are talking with the parents. Then we have student mentors who are studying adapted physical activity, and they are helping to facilitate and lead a smaller group of student volunteers who are getting experience working with kids with disabilities. It's neat how they are all learning and providing support."

More than 25 students served as volunteers this semester, with another eight students serving as mentors.

Abbey Stello, a sophomore early childhood and special education major from Punxsutawney, is one of the student mentors who didn't limit her community support to the confines of campus and the Kids In Action program. She and Jackson are working with special education teachers from Slippery Rock and Moraine Elementary Schools to help special needs students improve their gross motor and physical abilities. They do this through lesson plans and individualized education programs, or IEPS, related to physical activity.

Stello conducted the work as part of her Introduction to Adapted Physical Activity class, the same one that Brush took three years ago. She was placed with a student to work with throughout the semester, and all students from the class work with children who are transported to campus from their school.

"This was a great skill to learn especially since I am becoming a teacher," Stello said. "This collaboration mutually benefited us as students here at SRU and also the students in the community."

More information about SRU's adapted physical activity program is available on the Physical and Health Education Department webpage. More information about Kids In Action, including enrollment for future semesters, is available by contacting Jackson at or 724.738.4251.

MEDIA CONTACT: Justin Zackal | 724.738.4854 |