MIDVALE — When Justin Olson was 6 years old, there wasn't a lot for him to do other than follow the neighborhood kids around. Restricted to a wheelchair, he couldn't skateboard or bicycle with his neighborhood friends.
He sat out on the sidelines.
That was until he joined the adaptive programs at Copperview Community Center in Midvale. He soon found himself thrust into center field, playing on his own level.
"I can't describe it totally, but it just made him like, 'Wow, this is totally my thing,' " said Vivian Olson, Justin's mother.
Justin joined the center in 1990 because he wanted to make new friends and learn how to interact with other people. Now the 22-year-old Murray resident said all of his best friends are from the center.
"It's a benefit to people with disabilities," he said. "They can teach people how to be out in the community with other human beings."
Vivian Olson said her son has done a lot more than just make friends. She said the self-esteem and confidence he has gained from the program are more beneficial than the social skills.
"When I put him in those programs, he just seemed to shine," his mother said. "He looked forward to it."
She said every program Justin has participated in at the center has been adapted for participants with disabilities and modified for their ability level.
"They did it so that everyone enjoyed it and everybody played," Vivian Olson said. "It's a good place to have fun and socialize."
Kerri Prouty, Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation Adaptive Program coordinator, said recreational programs abound for people without disabilities, but those with disabilities also need a place where they can gain experience through activities.
"For people with disabilities, it's really important to be involved in recreation because generally that's where they learn skills," Prouty said. "They learn social skills by taking turns and through different activities."
Prouty helps coordinate programs for Salt Lake County involving individuals with disabilities. She works directly out of the Copperview Community Center, which coordinates programs for the entire county. The purpose of the adaptive programs is to provide recreation opportunities for people with disabilities to increase their skills and interest.
The programs allow individuals with disabilities to participate in sports like bowling, basketball and sledge hockey or socialization programs like bingo or dances.
"I think it brings a more normal quality of life for them," Prouty said of the sporting activities.
Every quarter, the center offers a different sporting activity and individuals can register for eight-week sessions.
Vivian Olson remembers when Justin played softball.
"No one was ever out," she said. "Everybody got to bat and get around the bases."
Justin said he likes to participate in track and field. He said the sports programs have let him do things on his own competition level.
"At track and field this year it has been really fun because everyone was at our level, but we were still competing," Justin said.
He has competed in Utah's Special Olympics for the past four years.
Although he said he likes the sporting programs, Justin said he also enjoys the Saturday night dances that the center holds.
"It's a way for people to just go out and listen to music that the DJs come and play," Justin said.
Prouty said her favorite thing to do is help with the dances. The dances are held every other week at the Copperview Community Center as part of the Adult Socialization Program. She said participants really get into the music.
"Some of them are developing social relationships — boy- and girlfriend relationships — so they like the slow dancing," Prouty said. "But then a lot of them really like the fast, fast dancing because they can dance by themselves and not worry about having to ask somebody or having to be asked, either."
Prouty said some of the adult programs are more social-oriented than the youth programs.
"Sometimes this is almost the only place, in some people, where they get to see their friends and they make friends," Prouty said.
Dancing with workers and volunteers also helps participants learn appropriate social behaviors, she said.
Prouty has seen a vast improvement in one participant who started coming to activities in the Adult Socialization Program five years ago.
"I think having a set or a consistent thing to do with somewhat consistent people, she got to know them a little bit and it's a safe group for her to communicate with to show who she is," Prouty said of the participant.
When she first came, Prouty said, the participant was very shy and rarely smiled.
"Now she recognizes everyone," Prouty said. "She comes in and gives people hugs that she knows, says 'hi' to everyone and smiles a lot."
Vivian Olson serves on the Salt Lake County Therapeutic Recreation Advisory Board. She said the skills her son has learned from the center are irreplaceable.
"It builds self-esteem and confidence," Vivian said. "These kids think they can build the world."