At top, scenes from cooking, fitness and swimming classes via the Adaptive Needs Program from Mill Valley Recreation and PAASS; the delicious results of one of those cooking classes, at middle; and scenes from PAASS’ Challenger baseball programs. Courtesy images.
When longtime Mill Valley resident Janet Miller and her son Tyler Barbee started the Challenger League in 2009, their goal was quite simple: give kids with special needs like Tyler’s brother Conor the same chance as other kids to participate in organized baseball by pairing them with “buddies” – primarily high school and middle school athletes – to assist them.

Fast forward eight years and the scope of their efforts has expanded dramatically in the form of a collaboration between Mill Valley Recreation and Project Awareness and Special Sports (PAASS), the Challenger League outgrowth that Tyler Barbee started in 2014. The adaptive needs partnership now includes swim lessons and summer camps for children with special needs, a wide array of classes that spans cooking, martial arts, strength and conditioning, dance and golf, as well as an innovative “work training experience” program.

PictureFrom left, City of Mill Valley Recreation Supervisor Kathryn Resigner, Recreation Director Jenny Rogers and Aquatics Coordinator Jeren Seibel accept the Helen Putnam Award for Excellence at the 2017 League of California Cities Conference in Sacramento. Courtesy image.

​The collaboration’s adaptive needs program was honored with the Helen Putnam Award for Excellence last week at the 2017 League of California Cities Conference in Sacramento.

“This absolutely is a community effort,” Miller says. “With the support of the City, our participants and families are being included and afforded opportunities that just have not been available in Marin. Our volunteers are also gaining so much and everyone is standing side by side – grateful to be helping one another.”

The collaboration originated in April 2013, when then-new Mill Valley Recreation Director Jenny Rogers met Miller at a City Council meeting, where PAASS was being honored as part of national Autism Awareness Month. Miller spoke at the meeting about the importance of employment opportunities for young people with disabilities, and for Rogers, a light bulb went off.

She knew that the Mill Valley Community Center had been struggling to recruit good employees, and ended up hiring Connor Barbee, who has autism, through its “Work Training Experience” program run by local nonprofit Integrated Community Services (ICS). Rogers and PAASS also combined forces to create the City’s first Adaptive Swim Lesson Program in February 2015.

Both the work training and adaptive swim lesson programs were so successful, and incited enough additional demand, that MV Recreation and PAASS expanded the partnership in 2016 by offering a unique summer camp experience, Camp PAASS Without Boundaries. Unlike past efforts to adapt camps to include those with special needs, the camp was tailored to the specific needs of a wide cross-section of those with special needs.  

“They were looking for that traditional summer camp experience for their kids in a camp all their own,” Rogers says. “This format helped to foster community, camaraderie, and inspiration among the kids.”

The program “filled the Community Center with participants engaged in a wide variety of fun and enriching summer activities including swimming, martial arts, cooking, dance, arts and crafts, natural science activities, sports and recreational games,” Rogers says, noting that the highlight was “Furs, Scales, and Tales,” a special animal show featuring a camp favorite, 8-foot-long albino boa constrictor.  

For summer 2017, Camp PAASS expanded from one to three week-long sessions, and now it’s being held up as an example for others cities throughout California to follow. “It’s our goal to use this summer’s success to help educate other cities about how best to offer adaptive needs programs,” says Recreation Supervisor Kathryn Reisinger. “It was absolutely heartwarming and reminded me of why I wanted to work in recreation in the first place.”

With ever-growing community support and a statewide award to show for its efforts, City staff have been asked to create training events specifically for recreation agencies throughout California. The Community Center has already hosted the Adaptive Needs Training Seminar (ANTS), which provided Aquatics staff with training on how best to offer Adaptive Needs Swim Lessons and inclusive Aquatics programming. City staffers have also presented at several professional conferences and workshops on the City’s Adaptive Needs Program.

In collaboration with its nonprofit partners, Mill Valley Recreation has provided more than 348 hours of Adaptive Needs Swim Lessons across more than 600 classes over the past three-plus years.

“It’s always our goal to help prepare participants to be more independent later in life, and each of these programs is going a long way to helping to make that happen,” Tyler Barbee says. “Our partnership with Mill Valley Recreation has been incredibly helpful.”

Rogers says her department has expanded these offerings into the fall session after-school program and camp sessions throughout the school year.

“The City’s Adaptive Needs Program is a perfect example of the thoughtful, inclusive, community-based programing that Mill Valley Recreation staff consistently execute and deliver,” says City Manager Jim McCann. “I’m proud to have this particular program honored, because it provides such a beneficial, and much needed service to special needs children. Jenny Rogers’ energy and enthusiasm for public service shine through in this and many other state-of-the-art programs she, and her staff, have developed for the community.”

The 411: Mill Valley Recreation and Project Awareness and Special Sports (PAASS) have partnered on swim lessons and summer camps for children with special needs as well as an innovative “work training experience” program. ​FULL PROGRAM SCHEDULE.