USEFUL INFORMATION—Cecilia Laufenberg, left, helps Sarah Green read the nutritional label on a can of whipped cream during a life-skills class for individuals with disabilities on April 18 at the Crowley House in Thousand Oaks. Laufenberg heads CRPD’s therapeutic recreation unit. She also has a son with autism. BOBBY CURTIS/Acorn Newspapers Does your son or daughter have any friends outside the family? Cecilia Laufenberg knows that if you have a child with a disability, the answer might not be yes.
For 27 years, Laufenberg has been the driving force behind Conejo Recreation and Park District’s therapeutic recreation unit, which provides programs for individuals with disabilities.
But since her son, Daniel, was born with autism 18 years ago, the Thousand Oaks mother of two has also been a client.
“I always had contact with parents who walked the walk before me,” she said. “I’ve gotten to see my son’s future, which is my future, too, as a special-needs parent.”
HEALTHFUL EATING—Cecilia Laufenberg talks about portion sizes during a life-skills class at the Crowley House. BOBBY CURTIS/Acorn Newspapers The therapeutic unit offers structured activities for children, teens and adults who have difficulty participating in recreation due to a disability, including cognitive, neurological, physical or emotional issues and sensory impairments. The varied activities include art, tennis, independent-living skills like cooking and self-advocacy.
The program serves around 500 people a year. Of those, half enroll in classes and the other half attend camps or special events.
The bonds formed between those participating in the activities are just as important as the health benefits, Laufenberg said.
“When kids come here, they can say, ‘That’s my friend.’”
Walking in their shoes
Laufenberg, who has a degree in recreational therapy from Kent State in Ohio, had worked for the park district for 10 years when her 2-year-old son was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. She had Daniel tested after noticing he missed developmental milestones like responding to his name or reaching out his arms to be picked up.
She said the diagnosis wasn’t earth-shattering for her.
“Because I was already in the field, I was very comfortable with it. As a matter of fact, I didn’t fully appreciate the diagnosis at the time because I was surrounded by unique children and to me, he was just another unique child,” she said.
After the diagnosis, Laufenberg relied on parents she’d met through the therapeutic unit for advice on how to help Daniel.
“We’ve grown up together,” she said. “It really is one big family.”
In the years since she began her work with the local special-needs population, Laufenberg said, the number she serves has remained the same but the composition has changed. When she started, the majority of clients had Down syndrome or intellectual disabilities; now, more than half of all clients have an autism spectrum disorder.
The cause of autism spectrum disorders remains unknown, but the prevalence of the diagnosis has exploded in recent decades, rising from three cases in every 10,000 births in 1990 to the current rate of one in 64.
George Lange, chair of the CRPD board of directors, said Laufenberg is what sets CRPD’s therapeutic recreation unit apart from similar programs in Simi Valley and Oxnard.
“Cecilia is the face of the program,” he said. “She has made it extra special because of her passion and her dedication to the field.”
Tri-Counties Regional Center— which is a resource hub for disability support services—called it “a model program throughout the state.”
When he met Laufenberg, CRPD director Joe Gibson said, he was impressed by her approach to disabilities because she didn’t see them as a setback.
“I’ve never seen anybody that is as caring as she is,” he said.
Future of the program
Gibson said the board has commissioned a survey of needs within the therapeutic recreation unit, namely regarding facilities, and he is awaiting the results.
The program is headquartered at Old Meadows Park, home to the Dreamcatcher Playground, which is outfitted to accommodate children of all abilities. Rotary Club and Play Conejo, CRPD’s nonprofit arm, joined efforts to raise money for a playground expansion several years ago. Work is slated to start on the final phase of the project later this spring.
The therapeutic recreation unit is housed in the converted barn of one of the area’s early families. Formerly known as the Rothschild barn, the building will be updated this summer, but Gibson said he’d like to see a state-of-the-art facility.
“Populations like that don’t have it easy, and we’re trying to do things for them that will make it a little easier,” he said.
Laufenberg is one of CRPD’s two full-time recreation therapists. Her counterpart, Devon Herbert, said what drew her to work for CRPD were Laufenberg’s passion and the caliber of her programs.
“There’s nothing like it in the surrounding cities,” Herbert said.
Rancho Simi and Oxnard park districts have adaptive recreation programs, but their scale and breadth don’t compare, she said.
What distinguishes CRPD’s program, Laufenberg said, is the board of directors and the city.
“The Conejo Valley really is unique for supporting the disabled population to the degree they do,” she said. “It’s all a reflection of the community and the people who live here.”
For more information or to donate to the Dreamcatcher Playground, visit .