Gail Rosenblum
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The National Recreation and Park Association didn’t waste a minute before warning us to resist the temptation to become too sedentary in these wintry months. On the second day of the new year, the association reported that nearly 60% of U.S. adults are less active in winter and Midwesterners are among the most sluggish. The solution? Turn to local park and recreation centers for many affordable indoor and outdoor options. We turned to Colleen Tusa, of Vadnais Heights, who is in a league of her own on the subject. Tusa has worked for St. Paul Adaptive Recreation for more than 30 years. She talks about how everybody fits in when it comes to fun physical activity now and year-round.

Q: You practice what you preach, for sure. Tell us about some of your favorite activities.

A: Camping, hiking, gardening, swimming, traveling. I also teach fitness classes six days a week but if I could be outside all the time, I would.

Q: What are some winter offerings at your rec center that you’d recommend to people of all abilities?

A: Many recreation centers offer events and activities inside and outside, including skating parties, fitness classes, open gym, swimming, ice fishing and more. It is best to contact the centers near you.

Q: You joined St. Paul Parks and Recreation in 1987, straight out of college, with a mission to build an adaptive recreation program. But that was at a time when the concept was new. What do you remember?

A: I had an interest in the nursing program at Winona State University and with that I was introduced to many people who had disabilities, both developmental and physical. From this, I began to understand that these folks had little opportunity for recreation, sports and leisure. Many people were still institutionalized. The names and terms used to describe folks with disabilities were so horrible, insulting. The reality was that there was a need for change in that area, a need for opportunities to enjoy sports and other physical activities, make friends, learn new skills and become healthier and happier individuals.

Q: What does your role entail?

A: I plan, coordinate, run and lead programs. Our participants are of all ages, with various special needs, but like most people they want to join sports teams, be active, have fun and meaningful leisure time. So, many sports teams were created. We have bowling leagues, basketball teams. kickball, floor hockey, soccer, archery, weight training and yoga. We run art classes, theater and music singalongs. We go on camping trips with bonfires, hayrides and archery.

Q: Do people need to live in St. Paul to take advantage of your adaptive recreation and general offerings?

A: Most of our participants are St. Paul residents, but we do offer our services to people from outside of St. Paul.

Q: What about your age range?

A: Our youngest participant was an 18-month-old with cerebral palsy who was in our swimming program. And a 91-year-old is still attending our bowling league. The majority of our folks are between 25 and 60.

Q: What kind of feedback do you get from families?

A: I get e-mails, phone calls, cards thanking me for doing what I do. But I’m not looking for a big award. It’s watching the participants that’s the best. Folks who are part of a team, cheering each other on, high-fiving. They make a basket and have never done that before. At one of our bowling leagues, we supply ramps. With assistance, we line ‘em up and the bowlers get pumped when they make a strike. Some want to take on the role of assistant coach, which gives them a feeling of importance. I see folks making friends, feeling proud and connecting with others.

Q: You’ve also become a matchmaker.

A: True. We have two folks who met in our program, got to know each other and got married.

Q: Your activities cater to people with physical and developmental challenges. How do you feel about mainstreaming, in which your athletes would play on teams with nondisabled athletes?

A: I believe there should be choices. I’ve always wanted inclusion in school settings and the workplace. The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 and this has brought more awareness, opportunities and regulations. But, again, having choices is key. Many people do best with their peers in equitable programs where they feel more accepted. I love intergenerational programs as well. I love including people with disabilities and non-disabilities, while assuring that there are also programs where they can relate with their peers and thrive.

Q: Any 2020 goals?

A: I want to continue to create more programs for the transition-age youth and young adults, where such programs are more difficult to find. I would like to see more collaborations with other programs in the city. And I plan to keep pushing for more inclusion in regular recreational programming, starting kids younger and setting them up for success as they get older.

Q: Why have you stayed put for more than 30 years?

A: I do this work because I know it enhances and changes lives. We need communities of acceptance and support, and social recreation is a big part of everybody’s life. We all should have that opportunity.