As campus recreation departments strategically strive to improve inclusiveness and place a greater emphasis on engaging in community service, the challenge of how to effectively achieve these goals remains unique to each institution. What may be practical for one campus rec department will not necessarily be feasible for another.
However, great examples of how to increase inclusiveness through programming, especially for community service, already exist in the realm of campus rec. While all programs that are inspired by efforts on other campuses do need to be adapted to meet your needs, the general roadmap for them can certainly prove to be the springboard for a successful and rewarding effort.
This article will focus specifically on one example of how campus rec can operate a community service-based program that fosters inclusiveness. This program is called Friends Day.
Friends Day is focused on young people with both physical and intellectual disabilities. For Friends Day, campus recreation organizes a day in which these individuals are invited to a recreation center to enjoy fun-filled, themed programming. Both professional and student campus rec staff — along with other campus partners who volunteer — serve as “buddies” to visiting young people with disabilities.
Montclair State University in New Jersey has been hosting a Friends Day event since 2008. This has been an annual tradition with the exception of 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Friends Day returned to Montclair’s Student Recreation Center in December of 2022, which was open to 125 “friends” and 300 “buddies.”
Friends Day Details and Considerations
Montclair was inspired to start its own Friends Day event when its new Student Recreation Center opened in 2008. Prior to 2008, Montclair Campus Rec would send students and staff to the “Special Friends Day” event hosted by the Rutgers University Campus Rec department at their facility. It was the Montclair students, excited by their volunteer experience at Rutgers, that motivated them to suggest Montclair should start hosting its own Friends Day event.
Besides being an incredibly fun experience for “friends” and “buddies” alike, Friends Day has a powerful impact on all involved. Romayne Eaker-Kelly, the director of Campus Recreation at Montclair State University, has overseen every Friends Days hosted there since 2008. She is passionate about the value of sponsoring a Friends Day event.
“It is a treasured event,” said Eaker-Kelly. “Student leaders over the years from within our department believe it’s the best and most rewarding event we offer our student body. Campus partners look forward to the day and find joy in knowing it’s a day for children and their families to be loved and cared for with a lot of fun for all participants.”
While incredibly worthwhile, planning and staging a Friends Day event can be a daunting task that requires impeccable attention to detail. All of the following items need to be given consideration:
1. Only work with reputable organizations to promote your event to families of young people with disabilities.
Whether it’s with Special Olympics, educational institutions or government agencies, it’s essential to have a recruitment plan in place which fosters collaboration with groups that are professional and dedicated to supporting the needs of individuals with disabilities.
2. Make sure all your legal bases are covered for the event.
Consult with your university counsel and/or risk managers to ensure you check every box when it comes to hosting an on campus event that caters to minors as well as persons with disabilities. Consideration needs to be given to event consent or waiver forms, emergency contact information, dietary restrictions, accessibility, etc. Be well prepared and don’t leave anything to chance.
3. Plan well in advance and stay organized.
A Friends Day event has a lot of moving parts. Planning needs to start well ahead of the event. Everything from budget to logistics (length of the day; one or two sessions in a day; age range of the participants; layout of activities in the rec center) to volunteers (campus rec only; collaborations with campus partners) to programming (a blend of high energy and lower key activities) to food and refreshments need to be given ample consideration and accounted for in the planning process.
4. And don’t forget the theme.
An important part of the planning process is determining a theme for the day. The theme will help drive the activities and decorations for your event. The first “Special Friends Day” at Montclair featured a birthday party theme. Over the years, a wide range of themes have been derived from pop culture, including ones based on “Candyland,” “Dr. Seuss,” “Toy Story” and most recently, “One in a Minion.”
5. Cast a wide net for plenty of buddies.
It’s great to get as many campus rec staff and students involved as possible, but Friends Day lends itself to being a campus wide collaborative program. At Montclair, the call for “buddies” goes out to the entire campus community. Student-athletes, Greek Life and Education majors are great specialized populations to target.
6. Training is a Must.
“Buddy” training is a critical part of the pre-event process. These volunteers bring enthusiasm with them but need to be educated about the details of the program, their roles, how to be the best “buddy” possible and what to do in the event of an emergency. Virtual training is an excellent tool to reach the wide array of volunteers who sign-up.
7. End in style and order.
Saving a large-scale activity that brings all “friends” and “buddies” together in one location for a fun-filled finale is a great way to end the day. It also helps set-up the parental/guardian pick-up process which is vital to an organized and safe conclusion to the event. Inviting family members to watch the final event of “Friends Day” is an excellent way to close things out.
Reaction to Friends Day
When asked to share her favorite Friends Day memory, Eaker-Kelly stated: “I don’t have one memory. I have so many. The joy on the faces of the children and families as they enter our building and see how the theme has been incorporated throughout the facility. The way our students come together with excitement to put the event together. Being thanked profusely by the caregivers for the opportunity to have some alone time. But I guess the greatest memory each year is the feeling of warmth when we succeed.”
Friends Day cannot work without tremendous volunteer effort from students who play a vital role in planning and serve as “buddies.”
Maurice Jenkins, a junior in 2022-23 at Montclair State University, is a student building manager for Campus Recreation who served in the role of chairperson for community service on the department’s Rec Board. His work was instrumental to the success of the most recent Friends Day. But to him, the effort was worth the reward.
“Friends Day was an event I spearheaded … It didn’t take long for it to become a passion project,” said Jenkins. “My main takeaway is I got to be a part of something bigger than myself. I was able to do it alongside all of my friends, and it was the ultimate satisfaction seeing all of our hard work pay off when I saw the smile on all of the children’s’ faces.”
Ultimately, Friends Day affords campus recreation a terrific opportunity to expand the horizons of inclusiveness through a meaningful community service project that “friends” and “buddies” appreciate for a lifetime and can be filled with joyful memories that make all the hard work worth it.
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