Engaging Youth with Disabilities: OSU’s Physical IMPACT

Each Friday afternoon during the school year, Oregon State University students host a truly impactful physical activity outreach program for special needs children. The IMPACT program, which stands for Individualized Movement and Physical Activities for Children Today, focuses on creating a supportive environment for improving motor skills fitness in children with disabilities aged 6 months to 21 years. 

The program, now in its 36th year, is led by Dr Joonkoo Yun, a professor in the School of Biological and Population Health Sciences. Dr Yun, known by his students as “J.K.” employs his doctoral and graduate students to organize and administer the various components of the research program involving hundreds of students and children each year. 

One of four youth development outreach programs within the College of Public Health and Human Sciences, IMPACT is a testament to how immersive training for students can also benefit people in the community.

The Mechanics of IMPACT
The way it works is Doctoral, and graduate students in the college organize a variety of activities within the historic Women’s building on campus. One PhD student coordinates the entire effort over a rotating two-year period. Grad students or “group leaders,” who are primarily students training to become Physical Education teachers, devise a series of stations for different physical activities that kids alternate between throughout the evening.


Volunteers and undergraduate students from various schools at OSU then work with kids one on one, or sometimes two on one, depending on disability. The pairings are designed to give children with disabilities the best support they can have with individualized attention.

Half of the children start in three gymnasium spaces on the main level of the building, and the other half are in the pool.  After 45 minutes of activity, the groups switch.  Although student participants commonly describe the event as “organized chaos” the end result is a lot of smiling faces.

Fun and Games
The first trickle of kids arrives around 5:30 p.m. in the opulently decorated entry hall of the Women’s building. The children are quickly corralled either into the gymnasium rooms or to the indoor pool area. At the enclosed pool, parents watch from an elevated gallery as volunteers assist kids down the stairs and into the pool. The vaulted pool space quickly becomes an echo chamber of laughter, but students calmly pair up and move the children towards small activity stations around the pool.  

One placard tacked on a kickboard reads “DEEP WATER Station.” The instructions on the placard, mainly meant for volunteers to read and impress upon their young partners, prompt movements like floating on your back to increase comfort or to “make your legs move like an egg beater” for treading water. Getting kids comfortable in the water, depending on age and ability, has varying levels of difficulty. Most kids float, bob, and maneuver around the pool with ease, but few exhibit some initial apprehension. However, volunteers and graduate team leaders floating around the space quickly calm any misgivings.  

In addition to the high instructor-to-pupil ratio that characterizes the program, three undergraduate student lifeguards trained in CPR patrol the pool area ensuring safety of all occupants. Despite how loud the space gets during peak activity, the program is a well-oiled machine, and it seems most everyone is having quite a bit of fun.

Up in the main Gymnasium, kids playing cornhole, bowling on tabletops, and throwing balls through hoops animate the floor space.  A graduate student in kinesiology stands against the wall with a clipboard documenting the flurry of activity. Another couple of students standing with a young girl in a motorized wheelchair confers with a parent about her child’s breathing tube. Other student’s retrieve bouncing balls and bean bags, some tossed with perfect accuracy, and others not so much. The point is everyone is learning something about their interactions, whether it is calculated or not.

More than anything, IMPACT demonstrates the importance hands-on experience has for training students, especially those with a focus on working with kids that have disabilities. The modest application fee of $50 makes IMPACT a very popular program in the Mid-Willamette area, with people traveling from far and wide to participate. 

For more information about IMPACT and other outreach programs in the OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences go to health.oregonstate.edu/extension or health.oregonstate.edu/impact.

By Chris McDowell