GUSR: A Community of Solidarity and Friendship

Gonzaga University Specialized Recreation (GUSR) is a program that partners Gonzaga students with individuals who have developmental disabilities to jointly share engaging experiences and form relationships built on solidarity, understanding, and most importantly, friendship. GUSR traces its history to the Way of the Heart retreat, which has existed at Gonzaga for over 20 years. Originally an overnight spiritual retreat for members of the Spokane L’Arche community (a series of adult family homes located just blocks away from campus), Way of the Heart is one of the first programs to exist under the CCASL umbrella. In 2003, students Megan Drobnicki and Tony Van Le began laying the groundwork for an expanded program serving the same population as Way of the Heart. GUSR was born. Designed to appeal to a wide variety of students, the program has two different ways for community members and students to get involved.

The more visible of these initiatives is the play program. Since the 2003-2004 school year, GUSR has developed and performed a play production for GU students and the Spokane community at the conclusion of each semester. These events put our participants front and center, with their GU student partner standing behind them out of the spotlight for moral support and help with lines. Essentially, the microphone is handed over and the personalities of GUSR’s participants take over the show. Participant JT Sinsel is known for leaping offstage and racing through the crowd, playing air-guitar and yelling words of encouragement for all who are present. David Herman, another GUSR participant, will often disregard any scripted lines that he may have and belt out a few verses from his own opera. Although this may happen multiple times during one performance, his singing always ends with a large bow and a roar of applause from the audience. As you can imagine, the play is powerful in many ways. The weekly practices leading up to the performance are dedicated to learning parts and developing relationships through games, crafts, and dances. The performance allows students, staff, and faculty to join with parents, siblings, and caregivers to form an interactive audience that is an integral part of the celebration of talents and abilities shared among all of those involved in GUSR.

GUSR also engages in collaborative athletic pursuits. In the fall, students and participants form unified partnerships and compete in Special Olympics bowling. In the spring, GUSR teams up with the GU club basketball team to put on a basketball clinic, full of drills and scrimmages, and fun games such as duck, duck, goose, and red light green light. Central to these activities is an emphasis on shared experience and uplifting one another. An example of this spirit shining in our athletic program occurred during a bowling practice last year.  Long-time participant Mike Butcher was struggling to keep the ball out of the gutter. Mike was overcome by frustration. Other members of the program noticed this and stepped in to give him countless words of affirmation and encouragement. During his last frame of the day, Mike bowled a spare, and the entire bowling alley erupted in applause. Mike’s smile that afternoon was a testament to the inclusive and uplifting spirit that makes GUSR so special.

Most importantly, GUSR is about transformation. Our program has been blessed to work with some of the same participants for over a decade. Participants Matt Johnson, JT Sinsel, and Joan Kent have been a part of GUSR since the beginning.   Generations of GU students have enriched these participants’ lives and had their own lives enriched by Matt, JT, and Joan. Andy Newman, currently a Junior and a coordinator for GUSR, describes how the program has affected him: “I want to live life as our participants do: lovingly, selflessly, optimistically, and full of excitement over the smallest things.” Many of the program’s Alumni volunteers remain in close ties with GUSR. Each year, alumnus Tommy Kraus returns to campus to support his friends as they take the stage for the fall and spring play performances. Tommy’s return to GUSR for a few hours each year is always cause for celebration and a wonderful example of the impression that volunteers and participants leave on one another. The magic of GUSR is best summed up in the words of Joan Kent, longtime GUSR participant, in a letter she wrote to one of our volunteers: “Lots of love and think of you always. Please be happy.”

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