LivAbility Magazine
A large panoramic shot of the individuals who came out for the Socialization Through Recreation class. There are one, two, three ... six people in wheelchairs. Arrayed around them are another group of ... 12. They all smile at the camera with various desert cactus and plants in the background.

Ability360 at the Desert Botanical Garden

Story by Kade Garner

Photos by Summer Sorg

It’s 9:30 in the morning and the sun is blazing. The heat doesn’t deter the birds, butterflies and bees from searching for the perfect flower or tree to land on at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. Nor does the heat discourage Ability360 consumers from enjoying a day at the Desert Botanical Garden.

The group is part of the Socialization through Recreation program at Ability360. Leanne Murrillo has been the program coordinator for 18 years. The program is designed to help people who live with varying types of disabilities get out of the house and take part in events. Having fun away from home is only part of the program. Socialization through Recreation also helps consumers learn, or relearn, different socialization skills.

“A few examples of social skills can be self-advocacy, it can be learning to work as a group, it can be making friends.” Murrillo explained, “Part of building social skills with some consumers is, first and foremost, getting them out of the house to talk with other people, to be around other people, to socialize when they may not have the chance to socialize.”

That is what brings the group to the Desert Botanical Garden today. Nearly 20 people in two Ability360 buses. Everyone was excited to be away from home, happy to be in the company of friends, surprised to learn about all the different types of desert plants that call Arizona home, and quick to smile as the heat beats down on them.

Nearly half of today’s participants use a wheelchair. The Desert Botanical Garden is accessible to chairs. Garden workers lend standard wheelchairs at the front desk. Most of the paths are paved and make for a smooth ride. However, a few of the trails have a steep grade and may not be accessible to someone in a standard chair without the help of a friend to give a good push.

Gabrielle Jauregui has been a member of the program for four months. Murrillo happened to overhear Jauregui talking to her father about becoming more involved and active and invited Jauregui to try out the program. She’s been attending ever since.

Jauregui loves the different activities she can do with the group and has made quite a few friends. Jauregui uses a standard wheelchair, but found no problem using the trails at the garden. “There are easy walkways and a fellow, disabled friend of mine has been very helpful in pushing me through, so it’s been very nice,” said Jauregui.

As the group made its way through the winding trails, they stopped often to take pictures and read fun facts about the various plants posted throughout the garden. The group passed between two towering saguaro cacti that cast a much-welcomed shadow. Here, they stopped for a shade break.

An art wall, made of circular stained glass, reflecting the nearby desert palette caught the summer sunlight creating a mesmerizing backdrop next to the skyscraper-tall saguaros. Mandy Sharpe took a break, drank some water and caught her breath.

Sharpe works at a local elementary school in a preschool classroom that specializes in teaching children who live with autism. She has been a member of the Socialization through Recreation program for years and loves coming to activities like these just as much as she did in the beginning. For her, these outings have given her more confidence.

“You should have seen me in the beginning. I was really shy, barely talked to anybody. I came to my first cooking group and Leanne paired me with Cara, one of the girls who’s in a wheelchair and we just talked, and I bloomed, flourished,” said Sharpe.

Eventually the group succumbed to the heat and made their way back to the buses, but not before taking a group picture.

“We have people come through very quiet, who don’t say anything, but they now volunteer, they have jobs, they go through voc rehab, they’ve gone through other programs at Ability360,” Murrillo said. “We miss people when they transition into the community, into work, but knowing that the Socialization through Recreation program helped build some of the skills they are using now is very rewarding.”

Kade Garner

Kade Garner

Kade Garner is a Northern-Arizona native. When he is not hooked up to an IV filled with diet soda, he is probably filming an event, taking pictures of his dog, or binge watching a new series. He’s an okay writer.