Lauren Ruiz is excited about the possibilities inclusion can offer residents with special needs.

Lauren Ruiz Credit: Lauren Ruiz

She is a program coordinator at Evanston’s Parks and Recreation Department tasked with supervising year-round inclusion in after-school programs, trips, outings and special events within the city’s special recreation program. Her first day on the job was Sept. 26, 2022.

Evanston’s Parks and Recreation Department has had inclusion coordinators and inclusion aides on staff since the 1990s. Ruiz is the only full-time inclusion coordinator for the city, according to Audrey Thompson, director of the department.

Ruiz said, “With the ADA Transition Plan having been updated within a week or so of when I started, I’m getting to be involved in changes that the city is making in the parks and rec department to make things more accessible. So it’s just a really exciting time overall, and I definitely want to be involved in as much as possible to provide a great experience for everybody.” 

The goal of inclusion services in programming is to “provide opportunities for individuals with disabilities to participate safely and successfully alongside peers,” per the department’s policies and procedures manual.

These associations serve as resources for families seeking assistance, recreation professionals looking to expand the services available in their communities, teachers and therapists looking to refer a candidate for inclusion and students looking for career and internship information.

Inclusion as advocacy

Ruiz says much of her work focuses on advocacy and awareness. In the three months since she joined Parks and Recreation, she has been working closely with Thompson, developing and refining departmental policies and meeting with families and staff to learn more about specific needs for specific individuals.  

Special Olympians at a dinner in their honor. From left, Kirk Nelson, Caroline Colianne, Grayson Deeney, Riley Hoffman and Alex Anderson. Credit: Wendi Kromash

Ruiz will be figuring out ways to provide safe and successful opportunities for people to participate to the fullest extent of their abilities. She has devised a guideline to help families of potential candidates and staff determine what resources might be needed.

That will include an inclusion assessment and a questionnaire to determine a person’s needs, abilities, strengths and interests in order to create a personalized plan.

Each situation is unique. “It might be something as simple as just talking with whoever the program leader is about this individual and what their specific abilities and strengths or needs are,” Ruiz said during a recent interview. “It might be providing adaptive recreation equipment, like an adaptive bowling ramp.”

Sometimes a person needs help with transitions from one activity to the next. “Staff training might help to review things that we can say a little bit differently or more clearly, or going up to an individual to make sure that we’re giving them that little bit of extra time to focus on what we’re saying or what’s happening.

“Visual tools are also something that we provide very often, such as a picture schedule that lays out what the program is going to look like or what the day is going to look like. Or getting a sticker for completing an activity or maintaining positive behaviors. It just really depends on the situation,” says Ruiz.

“A huge part of inclusion to me is advocating for that child with a disability, not only with the staff, but also for all the other individuals in the program. We definitely want to tell everyone what we’re doing now and what we’re hoping to do in the future,” said Ruiz.

“The far end of that would be to provide a staff person to be with them in that program to help them be as successful as possible,” Ruiz said. 

Practical application of policies

She provided an example that Ruiz believes illustrates so many dimensions of inclusion.

The situation involved a child around 3-years-old in a preschool program who is challenged by sitting calmly with a group during circle time. Ruiz created a little bin with some sensory toys in it for the child to use, but then needed to explain the issue and solution to the class.

“I had to find a way to present what the bin is to be used for, to the staff as well as to the kids,” she said. “I want them to understand that there’s no special treatment going on. And I also think it’s so important to develop an understanding about different needs that everybody has, not just kids with disabilities. 

“So we sat down together. I showed them what was inside. We talked about circle time. What it means to have a calm body and what we’re supposed to do during circle time. Everybody was participating and raising their hands. It means you have your legs crossed. You’re listening and you’re not talking. 

“Then we talked about how everybody has different times that they do not feel calm, and everyone has different things that they’re working on. And so for this child, this is something they are working on having a calm body during circle time. So this little bin is specifically for this child to use during circle time. And when circle time is over, we’re going to put it away, but this will help your friend to have a calm body just like everyone else is working on having a calm body at this time. 

“They were super accepting of that and everybody seemed on board with the situation. I also provided some time after circle time for the kids to explore the toys because you don’t want to make it a forbidden thing. And then before the next activity was scheduled to start, we put the bin away.

“The child was present for the discussion. I want the kids to understand that just because this child might not be looking at us or responding back to us, that doesn’t mean that they’re not aware of what’s going on or they don’t understand what’s going on. Everybody has different ways that they express themselves.

“Everyone was really supportive and the teachers were open to answering questions. I appreciate their hard work and help with making everybody be successful in the classroom. It isn’t just about the child with a disability, of course. Everyone is as important as everyone else. So we want to make sure that questions are answered and everybody’s feeling comfortable. That’s an important part of advocacy, too.

“It went so well. It was just the cutest thing. Everybody wanted to participate and talk about what they need help with and what helps them calm down. It was a great discussion. They’ve never had a disability awareness training like that with a group so young.”

Any group would benefit from this type of discussion, according to Ruiz. We all need help at times and different needs in order to be successful.

Ruiz’ journey to inclusion

Ruiz graduated from Grand Valley State University in western Michigan in 2005. Originally she thought she’d be studying physical therapy, but after shadowing a couple of professionals in the field, she decided it wouldn’t be a good fit for her.

“I knew I wanted to be in a helping field of some sort, working with people with disabilities, or related to health care, something like that. I came across recreational therapy and that was it.

“I am so blessed that I found it. It ended up being perfect. I mean, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.” Plus, she added, it’s an “awesome time” to be working in Evanston given all the exciting changes going on here.

Ruiz, who works closely with Thompson, is looking at ways to expand the public’s awareness of inclusion, said they are looking at all aspects of policies and programs.

The person who leads the way for inclusion in a particular program or sport deserves a lot of respect, according to Ruiz. “They’re so brave, you know, to go into a program and be the representative, kind of teaching the community about what they need and how they should be able to attend, and what they need to be successful.”

She welcomes and encourages family participation, with the goal of creating “the least restrictive environment…depending on what the need is.”  

“Inclusion is celebrating whatever the needs of this individual are . … So it’s a different way that someone is diverse, just like anyone’s religion or background or ethnicity or any of those things,” she said.

Although their responsibilities are different, Ruiz works closely with Leonard Woodson, program coordinator responsible for all Special Olympics programs and Special Recreation summer camps.

They knew one another professionally from when Ruiz worked at the Maine-Niles Association of Special Recreation. When Woodson learned that Ruiz had applied to the inclusion position, he thought to himself, “My money’s on Lauren.” He turned out to be right. 

Families interested in learning about inclusion resources, as well as persons interested in learning about job opportunities as inclusion aides, are welcome to contact Ruiz through the Parks and Recreation Department at

Wendi Kromash

Wendi Kromash is curious about everything and will write about anything. She tends to focus on one-on-one interviews with community leaders, recaps and reviews of cultural events, feature stories about...

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  1. Congratulations to Evanston for hiring Ms. Ruiz! The story about preschoolers especially resonated with me, as I am a clinical social worker and early childhood consultant who has spent much of my career helping teachers provide inclusive, emotionally supportive environments that include making just such individual plans to help young children function in the classroom when needed. Children don’t even need to have a diagnosed disability to struggle with staying calm at circle time! This is a huge common problem, and finding ways to individualize expectations and supports for young children is an exceedingly useful tool in the classroom. Talking about this child’s need for help keeping a calm body with the other children is especially important, so that the other children can be accepting rather than rivalrous with whatever the special plan is. I have found this strategy to be amazingly useful and easy to implement, despite the fact that often teachers are reluctant to make such individual plans for fear “everyone will want it,” and they will lose their ability to be in charge of the classroom. Individualizing in early childhood classrooms goes a long way to creating peaceful, compassionate environments in which children thrive.