From heading Alexandria’s therapeutic recreation division to helping students in the classroom, Bill Dwyer is a man with a mission. And his service has not gone without recognition. Last month, during Alexandria’s birthday celebration, the city government presented Dwyer with the “Service to the Community” award for his long-standing effort to help people with disabilities.
“People with disabilities are just like other people. They do as much for me as I do for them,” Dwyer said. “I’m really lucky that I’ve been able to do this for so long. Seeing their determination has certainly been motivating for me.”
Dwyer, a native of Alexandria, spent many years working in the family business — Dwyer Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning. In the early 1980s, he enrolled in classes at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. But he wasn’t sure what to major in. After a few semesters, he chose the relatively obscure major of “therapeutic recreation.”
“I was looking for a degree, and I thought it would be easy,” Dwyer said. “So I guess you could say that I sort of fell into this.”
After graduating from Virginia Tech, Dwyer took several positions — teaching kids with emotional problems, working as a camp counselor and even returning to the family business. But none of these were fulfilling for Dwyer, so he did what any self-respecting 28-year-old would do.
“I ran away from home,” Dwyer said. “I got in my car and drove as far as possible. That’s how I ended up in Anchorage, Alaska.”
In Alaska, Dwyer worked for a Boys Club. A few months later, he ended up back in Alexandria — again working for the family business, which was now known as Fairfax Mechanical. Not satisfied with this line of work, Dwyer took a position as a “therapeutic recreation leader” with the City of Alexandria. The job description included planning activities, promoting socialization and developing social skills.
“I finally realized that it was time for me to use my degree,” he said. “And I loved it.”
AS A RECREATION LEADER in the city’s Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities, Dwyer worked to promote education, socialization and development. He encouraged children with disabilities to build social skills and he worked with adults to maintain social abilities. Within three months, he was promoted to associate director.
“I hit the top quickly,” Dwyer said. “The city has a policy of hiring from within. So as people moved out, I moved up.”
In 1992, he became director of the therapeutic recreation section, a job that he held for 11 years. As director, Dwyer organized a parents’ advisory council and put together a needs assessment for the city. He implemented a three-year plan to upgrade services, improving handicapped accessibility at Fort Ward Park, Chinquapin Recreation Center and Cora Kelly Recreation Center. He added new after school programs for children with emotional problems and worked with an advisory panel to create a presence for those with disabilities during the George Washington birthday parade.
“His leadership kept us focused,” said Jackie Person, who worked with Dwyer in the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities. “He really has a passion to help kids with special needs.”
Person said that no task was too small for Dwyer, who wore many hats as director of the city’s therapeutic recreation programs. She said that he would drive vans, organize summer camps, volunteer for soccer programs and work one-on-one with children and their parents.
“I wanted to make sure that the needs of people with disabilities were being met,” Dwyer said. “Over the years, the community became increasingly aware of the needs of disabled people.”
One of Dwyer’s goals was to take successful programs and institutionalize them. Many of the parents involved in therapeutic recreation would create wonderful programs, then stop participating when their child moved on to other things. Dwyer was frustrated about this and worked to create a sense of continuity.
“There were lots of great parents doing wonderful things, but they were carrying all the weight,” Dwyer said. “Fortunately, I left and the programs are still there.”
Dwyer left city government in August 2004. He went back to school and got a master’s degree in special education from George Mason University. Now he’s in the process of shifting toward a new job — teaching students with disabilities at Hammond Middle School.
“We’re very excited to have a teacher like Bill,” said Hammond Principal Randolph Mitchell. “He’s off to a great start.”
For Dwyer, the move from city government to the school system is an opportunity to have a more fulfilling role in the lives of children with disabilities.
“I could shuffle paper with the best of them, but I wanted to get back to the hands-on stuff,” Dwyer said. “I’m really excited to use what I learned at George Mason.”