CAST’s School of Kinesiology and Recreation alumna Heather Richardson ’08, ’10 knew her passions before her college experience began.

Richardson was heavily involved in music and theatre throughout high school, but she also enjoyed working with a variety of special recreation association (SRA) programs offered to individuals with disabilities. When she came to Illinois State, she originally chose to pursue a major in music but continued to spend her weekends and breaks working with her local SRA.

Richardson enjoyed the job’s flexible and impactful nature and eventually discovered that she could study the work she was doing in an academic setting. In the last semester of her undergraduate career, she ended up working toward a bachelor’s degree in recreation and park administration-therapeutic recreation.  

In her time at Illinois State, she worked with music and service fraternities, the Alamo II, and the Center for Performing Arts. She was also a board member for the student Parks and Recreation Society, where she was able to branch out, network, and make friends that she keeps in touch with today.

Richardson currently works as the Support Services Supervisor at Western DuPage Special Recreation Association (WDSRA). The organization provides community-based recreation programs and opportunities for individuals with disabilities, serving a span of nine communities within DuPage County. She is responsible for the hiring, training, and supervision of part-time staff.

“This is an exciting and fulfilling position for me because I started off as a part-time staff member at an SRA. It’s one of those full-circle situations. Starting off as a sixteen-year-old assistant staff member in a program, to working an internship, becoming a leader, and being the one who does the staffing and the training is so exciting,” she said.

Richardson enjoys working with staff and sharing stories of her own personal experiences during training. Working in the same role throughout high school and college, she can relate to the staff she hires on a personal level and keep training relevant and interesting.

Her work also offers sets of challenging and rewarding moments, especially when it comes to working with staff.  

“When scheduling the seasonal staff at the organization, we offer a lot of flexibility. We will work around our staff’s schedule and have them work during whatever season is best for them. It’s a great aspect, but also a challenge because our organization’s needs are constantly changing,” she said, “Due to the nature of our work we tend to attract a number of high school and college students. Working with this group of staff is exciting—they have a great amount of energy, fresh new perspectives, and know a lot of new games and activities that bring some great ideas and resources into our programs. But they are still learning professional skills and communication skills. Sometimes it can be a challenge to coach younger staff through certain situations.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has also presented some challenges and benefits for her organization.  

“We had to pivot and go entirely virtual pretty quickly at the start of the pandemic when our programs came to a screeching halt. Adding technology took a lot of teaching and flexibility in the beginning, but we have now been going strong with our virtual programs since March. We have discovered as an agency that we’d still like to continue to do virtual programs, even after the pandemic settles down,” she said.

With the virtual programs, WDSRA has been able to reach an expanded audience of individuals to participate in programs. In addition to virtual programs, Richardson expects to continue to offer Zoom interviews during the hiring process and work on building a virtual training library with video resources that staff members can access on their own time. 

Richardson continues to work with her staff and is passionate about spreading awareness on therapeutic recreation as an academic major. She enjoys sharing information on educational opportunities and career paths within her field with staff members.

“To know that I hired some of my staff members and helped guide them through their options, open doors for them, and see them graduate and go on to working in the field at a full-time status is so rewarding. I feel like my path has taken me exactly where I’m supposed to be,” she said.

She encourages prospective students that are considering therapeutic recreation to take advantages of opportunities and resources that they have access to. 

“If it’s something you’re interested in, go for it. One of my biggest pieces of advice I like to share with people is to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way,” she said, “By exploring every opportunity, you’re really going to figure out what your niche is and where your heart is going to be, and that’s where you’ll find success.”

Want to learn more?

Does a future in therapeutic recreation interest you? Check out the School of Kinesiology and Recreation’s website to learn more about different opportunities and majors within the field.

To learn more about WDSRA, visit their website here.