by Shannon Carr, Communications & Social Media Specialist

Leslee Hamilton, executive director of Guadalupe River Park Conservancy,  is deeply rooted in the belief that connecting with nature can enrich your life — no matter who you are.

Student Peter Woch explores Guadalupe River with Morgan Autism Center employee Christina Brown on a River Explorers field trip.

Student Peter Woch explores Guadalupe
River with Morgan Autism Center employee
Christina Brown on a River Explorers field trip.

“This park is for everyone,” she emphasizes of Guadalupe River Park in San Jose. “And one of the things that I love about it is there is something for everyone, whether your thing is public art or bird watching or using the trails or gardens, or active recreation.”

The organization’s philosophy expands the definition even further: to people with different abilities.

“We launched our program for children with special needs in Fall of 2011,” Leslee says.

Special Needs Outdoor Learning Program at Guadalupe River Park Conservancy offers field trip programming designed for persons with special needs, including those with autism, Down syndrome, ADD, ADHD, deafness, blindness, and mobility impairments, according to its website.

This includes River Explorers — a hands-on, outdoor program that takes participants down into the river to experience a riparian habitat — and Flower Power — a program where special needs students can explore what the Heritage Rose Garden and Historic Orchard have to offer — both of which Morgan Autism Center students and adults have experienced.

“When Leslee told me how the staff at Guadalupe had some training for special needs students, I asked if we could be part of their program,” former Executive Director Jennifer Sullivan says. “She was very enthusiastic and encouraging of our participation.”

Students from Morgan Autism Center first visited Guadalupe in April 2011 but regular, weekly visits started in 2012.

“It has been a great partnership, giving our clients a nice opportunity to feel they are helping the community, which indeed they are,” Jennifer, who now works in the Adult Program, says.

This collaboration still continues today. Separate groups from Room 10 and the Adult Program visit Guadalupe every Friday, where they complete various tasks including picking up trash.

It is a favorite outing of many of the clients.

“While getting the benefit of exercise with a nice, long walk, and fresh air, having some time for socializing, our group also gets to work on important skills such as tool safety, and trail safety,” Flo Fuller, Morgan Autism Center Community Integration Director, says.

In fact, it is so popular that we have started rotating clients so they all get a turn.

Adult Program employee Roger De La Cruz has been part of the outings for nearly a year and a half.

“What I enjoy most about Guadalupe Park is that it enriches our clients’ lives as they help beautify the park,” he explains. “Guadalupe Park provides a safe space for our clients to build their teamwork skills.”

He is the group leader at Guadalupe and takes — along with other staff — a big group there every Friday. Boris, Molly, Drew, Chuck, John F. and Julian were just some of the many to share their enthusiasm recently about the ongoing partnership.

“What I really love the most is that there is recycling and trash to pick up and save for!” Julian says, excitedly. “I really hope I would do this some day on my own too. What I’ve learned is that I always try to do my best to keep up with the group and not to go way too far ahead.”

Many of them also enjoy what the location of Guadalupe Park offers.

“I go to Guadalupe every other Friday and I like to see the airplanes pass by on their way to the San Jose Airport: Southwest airlines and all United States airlines,” Chuck says.

Room 10 teacher Christine Cipriano said a highlight for her has been seeing relationships form and grow, noting one in particular.

“I especially love the special friendship that Jason has formed with Ranger Mike,” Christine says. “Mike still stops by to see Jason for special occasions like a lunch outing to the Elephant Bar, his birthdays and graduation even though he is now a park ranger at Alum Rock Park.”

Leslee is looking forward to furthering the relationships and partnership with Morgan Autism Center and like-minded organizations in the future, noting the ability to do so through the $6 million Rotary Children’s Playgarden — currently under construction — which will enable children with special needs to play alongside their siblings and friends. The project will be completed soon and will be maintained by Guadalupe River Park Conservancy via volunteers, in-kind donations, and fee-for-service contracts.

For more information about Guadalupe River Park Conservancy’s  special needs programs, contact or (408) 298-7657.