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For Every Obstacle there is an Opportunity in the Making

By Robyn Stawski

Growing up, it is every child’s desire to be included, loved and accepted and to be given the opportunity to grow and experience life to the fullest. To be given the chance to develop life skills that will grow their confidence and develop their self-esteem as they get older and later become adults. For myself all of these things played a critical role in who I am as a person today as well as my outlook on life and life’s challenges.

Personally, as an individual growing up, I faced many obstacles. Born with Spastic Cerebral Palsy due to complications at birth, I was only able to walk short distances with the use of a walker. Otherwise, I was dependent on the use of a wheelchair or crawling as my primary means of mobility. However, through the challenges, numerous surgeries and therapy sessions, deep within I just wanted to be a “normal” kid and the YMCA gave me that opportunity as a third grader when I was enrolled in their afterschool program where I not only received help with my homework, take part in games and activities, but built relationship with other kids in a safe nurturing environment.

Forty-three years later, the Y has been a foundational part of my life, not only to who I am as a person, but being an instrumental part in helping me overcome the obstacles that were once greater than myself physically, mentally, and emotionally. In 2006 I had the honor of becoming a part of the Y family as an employee as a Welcome Center Representative for the last 14 years, were I get to greet the members on a daily basis and share in their successes, as well as see firsthand some face struggling times as the YMCA is truly an extended family as I have rejoiced with members as they completed their first 5k and cried with others as they battled the diagnoses of cancer.

In January of 2018, I became a full-time staff member and Welcome Center Advisor at the Bob Sierra North Tampa YMCA. With reasonable accommodations and co-workers that understood and valued the power of inclusion, my team of co-workers became my second family. In 2020, in the middle of a pandemic, I embraced the challenge of working in our site-based afterschool program. There my heart was not only to help the children grow and develop, but I saw their growing interest in wanting to learn about people’s disabilities as they may be seen on the outside, but the programs and their peers’ desires to include them, because as our youth programs have grown so have the number of children we have with diverse abilities. Thankfully, as a person with a disability, I have been able to help bridge which was once a gap and teach them the value and power of inclusion, because that is what my coworkers and Y family has done for me, through hard times they have embraced my differences and at any given moment have not hesitated to accommodate my needs what ever it takes to help me reach my goals and always have my back, while also embracing my personal support provider as they also become part of the YMCA extended family.

 With a love for sports, and with the help of the dedicated staff and training, I competed in the 2008 Paralympics in the shot put, discus and javelin; however, I was also given the opportunity to take my first steps walking independently. Because of the strength, hard work and the support of my Y family, I can now stand tall, have greater mobility and confidence. As others like myself may have the opportunity to attend an after school program, learn to swim, attend summer camp or participate in one of our youth sports or adaptive programs and learn the life skills needed to be the leaders they have been called to be. For at the Y, there is truly something for everyone of every ability, even if it requires a simple adaptation or creativity.

Robyn Stawski