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‘A lot of love’: La Jollans host backyard activities for young adults with disabilities

After Nikki Pousti (foreground) showed signs of anxiety, her parents began hosting a program in their backyard to help.
After Nikki Pousti (foreground) showed signs of anxiety, her parents, Tom and Marjan, began hosting a program in their La Jolla Shores backyard to help.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

When their disabled daughter and her peers showed signs of anxiety at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Marjan and Tom Pousti worked to boost their confidence with activity and interaction.

The La Jolla Shores residents have run a program in their backyard since summer 2020 in which their daughter Nikki, 22, and 10 to 15 other young adults engage in activities including fitness, arts and crafts, dancing and science.

The participants all have diagnoses ranging from cerebral palsy and autism to other developmental and intellectual disabilities.

The Poustis lead science projects, reading activities, P.E. exercises to help improve coordination and balance, and dance lessons that incorporate cognitive development.

Some days, the group will walk to nearby Kellogg Park to learn kickball on the grass or hit the waves at the beach.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the group sang along to one participant’s karaoke rendition of “Hotel California.”

The activities are varied but the goal is consistent: to provide the young adults with a supportive environment.

“This is a population people sometimes forget about,” Tom said. “People talk about kids, people talk about the elderly, but we forget that many, many ... young adults have special needs.”

As the pandemic led to widespread closures and isolation in 2020, just after Tom retired from his plastic surgery practice, Nikki, the third of five Pousti children, experienced “severe depression and anxiety. … We needed to do something about it,” he said.

Marjan said Nikki’s skills such as communication and other basic functions regressed initially as her post-high school transition school closed and other social opportunities withered.

“It was so scary,” Marjan said.

In talking to parents of Nikki’s peers, “I realized they were all going through that,” Marjan said. “This is a whole community thing.”

Marjan and Tom Pousti's backyard program includes fitness and coordination activities.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

A few months later, the backyard program began, with a hired teacher at first who led the breadth of activities daily. As schools reopened, Tom and Marjan took over, running the program twice a week.

The participants, who come from Carlsbad to Chula Vista, are accompanied by a few aides, caregivers and volunteers who assist the Poustis.

Since the program began, “I’ve seen a difference,” Marjan said. One woman was in tears daily “until she started coming here.”

The backyard program provides the participants “a lot of positive reinforcement,” Marjan said.

David Nichols, a La Jolla resident whose son Alex, 28, attends the Poustis’ program, said “it’s a really neat thing that they’ve offered this [and] opened their house up.”

Alex and his peers “need [and] thrive in a schedule,” David said. The pandemic-related “lockdowns were lethal. Alex was nervous.”

Beyond furnishing a consistent schedule, the backyard program builds its participants’ self-esteem and helps them discover their capabilities, Marjan said.

Participants sing along to "Hotel California" during karaoke.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

She recalled when the group hesitantly learned to conquer the slackline, a large band of rubber hovering above the ground to practice balance. After each person had finished, there was “a sense of accomplishment.”

David said he’s seen improvements in Alex’s coordination and fitness.

Alex said he’s most enjoyed the friends and relationships he’s built through attending the program.

Participant Riley Pathman, who has cerebral palsy, said he loves “doing P.E. with Coach Tom” and that swimming days in the pool are his favorite.

Tom said he’s never seen someone smile as widely as when Riley is in the pool moving freely without his walker.

Riley’s longtime caretaker Heather Graves said “there’s not always programs for us to be able to do stuff like this.”

She said having such “a program that is accepting of the differences [and] is a mix between physical therapy and P.E. … is a wonderful experience.”

Graves said Riley’s confidence level has shot up through his participation.

Marjan said the social aspect of the program is the most crucial: “We’re trying to [foster] life-long friendships. … They are supportive of each other.”

“Social interactions are their world,” Tom said.

He said he and Marjan are working toward solidifying the program as an official nonprofit and expanding it. “I want something … meaningful, to provide some kind of service every day,” Tom said.

“[They’re] getting ... a lot of love,” Marjan said. “It’s just very satisfying.” ◆