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Denise McArthur (left) helped build the therapeutic recreation program at McMaster Children’s Hospital Ron Joyce Children’s Health Centre for 33 years. She assisted hundreds of patients during that time, including Mercy Nyakundi (right) who recently made the under-25 Canadian women’s national basketball. (Photo right: Dhiren Mahiban/Wheelchair Basketball Canada)
September 27, 2023

Nothing but net: RJCHC therapeutic recreation program scores big for kids

Mercy Nyakundi, 18, is on her way to Texas on a basketball scholarship, thanks in part to an assist from a special staff member at Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) Ron Joyce Children’s Health Centre (RJCHC). The RJCHC is part of our McMaster Children’s Hospital (MCH).

Mercy Nyakundi was involved in many sports initiatives during her time with RJCHC. Mercy is pictured here showing off her skills at the Haber Recreation Centre two years ago.

Nyakundi, who has Spina Bifida, was introduced to wheelchair basketball four years ago as part of the therapeutic recreation program at RJCHC. Now she’s a basketball star, recently named to the under-25 Canadian women’s national team in addition to her scholarship to the University of Texas at Arlington. Nyakundi will be traveling to Thailand with the Canadian team next week to take part in the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation Women’s Under-25 World Championship in Bangkok.

The therapeutic recreation program is part of the MCH Developmental Pediatrics and Rehabilitation Department. This department provides outpatient assessment and treatment for children and teens up to age 19 with physical, cognitive and/or developmental issues. One of the programs at RJCHC provides occupational therapy, physiotherapy, speech-language pathology, social work, therapeutic recreation and early childhood resource services to families they serve.

Hospital wheelchair sports program ignites a passion

It all started with Denise McArthur, an HHS therapeutic recreationist who has been a part of the developmental pediatric rehabilitation department for over 33 years. She first met Nyakundi six years ago, when her family moved from Kenya to Canada.

“I remember connecting with Mercy in 2017 when she was 12 years old for a leisure education session,” says McArthur. “At the time, she expressed an interest in music and a brand new track-and-field program at the Hamilton Olympic Club. I received a grant through the Trillium Foundation with the Hamilton Accessible Sports Council to explore and run the program at Ron Joyce. The music didn’t pan out for her, but she was involved in the track program for a couple of years.”

“Seeing the passion and expertise she’s developed in wheelchair basketball and seeing her eyes light up when she talks about it has been very rewarding, and quite memorable during my career here.”

Nyakundi also joined the RJCHC Youth Advisory Committee and became a volunteer. When McArthur developed a partnership with the Ontario Wheelchair Sports Association, now the Ontario Para Network, to run an eight-week introduction to wheelchair sports program at RJCHC, Nyakundi joined and developed an interest in wheelchair basketball.

“I introduced her to Chris Chandler from the Vipers wheelchair basketball program and she developed her skill and love of the game with them,” says McArthur. “Watching Mercy bloom has been beautiful. Seeing the passion and expertise she’s developed in wheelchair basketball and seeing her eyes light up when she talks about it has been very rewarding, and quite memorable during my career here.”

Therapeutic recreation program gives kids fun goals

McArthur provides families with information and support to participate in community recreation programs. She also runs programs/groups at RJCHC that are not available in the community which are more therapy-based.

“This leisure education is vitally important so clients and their families can find a balanced lifestyle outside of school. It also gives kids a chance to work on specific physical goals in a fun environment,” she says.

Over the last three decades, the program has grown from McArthur, the lone therapeutic recreationist, to five, providing recreational rehab care to thousands of patients over that time.

A long career in helping kids with adaptive sports

Nyakundi, now a former patient, is moving on with the next chapter of her young adult life, and McArthur too, is shifting gears into retirement.

McArthur is the chairperson for the Hamilton Accessible Sports Council and has supported many in-house RJCHC therapy programs, such as “I can bike day”.

“Throughout my career, I have had the privilege to work with many children and their families. I’ve introduced clients to sports and they’ve gone on to compete in the Paralympics. Now, I have two clients who have made the under-25 women’s wheelchair basketball team for Canada, and two others that have made the youth Ontario team. It’s been a dream to work with them all.”

McArthur has also been instrumental in creating many other initiatives connecting RJCHC clients with recreation opportunities in the community such as the Hamilton Challenger Baseball League, the Hamilton Ice Cats, Para Athletics, and Limitless Music.

She has chaired the Hamilton Accessible Sports Council and has supported many in-house RJCHC therapy programs, such as “I can bike day” and day camps, and has a caseload of almost 400 clients for leisure education and ongoing support. She’s also a clinical instructor for therapeutic recreation students and a guest lecturer at Mohawk College.

Patients win with a growing program

Lindsay Bray is a clinical leader in the developmental and pediatric rehabilitation unit.

“Denise is empowering,” says Bray. “From spearheading the Hamilton Accessible Sport Council, to supporting almost 20 local sports agencies, Denise has shown nothing but dedication in her role throughout the years. We’re so incredibly lucky to have worked with Denise here in Hamilton.”