AMHERST – A smile may not seem like much of a reward, but for the volunteers at the S.M.I.L.E. program, a smile goes a long way.
The program, which runs every Saturday morning for children with various special needs, gives kids the chance to make friends and interact with other children their age that they may not be able to see on a regular basis.
“It’s a recreation program for children between the ages of three to 21,” said Erin Perry the executive director for Cumberland Early Intervention program which co-ordinates and organizes the S.M.I.L.E program. “It’s one hour in the gym and one hour in the pool. And all the children have a buddy from Mount Allison University, so there’s one-on-one support for each child.”
S.M.I.L.E., Perry added, is a great way for the parents to have a few respite hours and know they children are well looked after and having a lot of fun.
The program also has different activities including crafts and cooking to help keep the clients learning and entertained, especially for those you can’t venture out into the pool. The program serves all of Cumberland County with some children even travelling from as far as New Brunswick to join in on the fun.
“I love all of it,” said Scott Park, one of the program’s clients.
“I have fun being with my buddies,” said Nolan Dobbin another client. “We play basketball and we go swimming. It’s my favourite.”
Student co-ordinator Jefferson Hayre has been with the program for three years. He said working with his buddy and all the children in the program is the highlight of his year.
“I look forward to Saturday every week,” he said. “It’s always a lot of fun. It’s a nice way to get away from the stress of school but you’re having fun helping out. When you go home at the end of the day, you’re on a ‘S.M.I.L.E. high’. You feel so good and you had so much fun, and then you fall asleep because you’re exhausted.”
For Hayre, coming to the program every Saturday morning is like an addiction. He said he can’t imagine a weekend without getting up early just to come to the Cumberland YMCA and working with the clients.
“I wake up early on Saturdays instinctively now,” he said. “It’s one of the only days that when my alarm goes off, I actually get up. Class no, but for S.M.I.L.E., yeah.”
Both Perry and Hayre agree that, as a buddy, you see the affect it has on the kids to have fun and interact with children their own age and with similar special needs. The bonds created at the program, Hayre added, can last for years. In fact, he said some of the buddies and their clients have been together for almost six years.
Unfortunately, Hayre said this year will be his last year with the smile program. He said leaving his buddy and the program behind will be a tough day.
“The program I’m applying to next year has a similar program to this so I’ll get my fix,” he said. “It’s going to be really hard to say goodbye. I’m going to try not to cry, but I might get a little emotional. It’s going to be tough.”