College of Education and Human Development

Helping Others

November 18, 2019

by Greg Sullivan

Recent therapeutic recreation graduate Lia Winnard knew she wanted to find a way to help others following her time at George Mason.

Winnard had very personal reasons drawing her to Mason’s College of Education and Human Development for her major. And now she’s found the perfect job while fulfilling her outside-of-work passions, seeing her goals become a reality.

“I chose my major because I have a physical disability and I’ve been around a lot of therapists my whole life,” Winnard said. “I weighed out choosing between physical therapy and occupational therapy, and I realized I could practice right away with a bachelor’s degree in therapeutic recreation.”

Winnard has cerebral palsy, a condition she was born with which affects roughly 1 in 300 people and can range in both severity and in how it affects the body. In Winnard’s case, she is able to live a very active lifestyle. The 23-year-old competes in Paralympic swimming with a team she captains in Fairfax County. To enter competitions, athletes are evaluated by medical professionals for events. Winnard’s classifications are impacted by some limitations on her right side and her ankles when she competes in different events.

She’s competed in recent months at events in Cincinnati and Baltimore and is working to boost team membership and get the team ready for more competitions. Winnard competes in 50m freestyle, 100m freestyle, 50m backstroke, and 100m backstroke.

Recently, she started her first full-time job as a community integration coordinator at ServiceSource in Springfield, Virginia. ServiceSource is a large, non-profit organization headquartered in Northern Virginia that provides employment and support services for people with disabilities.

Winnard, a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist, said she’s using many skills she learned while at Mason and also drawing on personal experience to make a difference.

“I bond with people on kind of a more personal level. I’ve felt some of the same emotions that they have,” Winnard said. “That maybe people have treated them differently just because of their disability. A lot of people at the site where I work can have very severe disabilities, so they might not get the same opportunities.”

Winnard said the job has helped her to grow more comfortable with opening up publicly because her personality is somewhat reserved.

“I’m planning and organizing different activities, contacting different organizations, seeing if they’d like to talk to our participants,” she said. “I’m really pushing myself out of my comfort zone in general with having this job.”

A big part of the Northern Virginia native’s life, aside from work and swimming, is volunteering. She’s done volunteer work with Special Olympics swimming and has volunteered with nursing homes and in memory care facilities for adults with dementia.

More recently she’s been doing volunteer fundraising for a horseback riding program (a sport she participated in growing up) and is in the process of launching a new nonprofit, Pursuit Adaptive Sports and Recreation, for adults with physical disabilities in Northern Virginia. For that non-profit, she’ll serve as the volunteer recreation therapist that will link adults with weekend adaptive sports in the area.

“I noticed that area is lacking,” Winnard said. “There are many resources for children with disabilities, but as they grow older and become adults all the resources kind of disappear. It kind of comes full circle because the clients I’m working with now, they’ll benefit most from these therapeutic sports.”

That’s not the only way things have come full circle for Winnard. When it comes to this interest in advocating for others, she said she drew inspiration from her mother, Carol Corso, who teaches in Mason’s Global and Community Health Department. When Winnard was young, her mother was instrumental in setting up a horseback riding program that Winnard was able to participate in.

“She started a horseback riding program with the help of some other people, and that really inspired my whole career path,” Winnard said.

Between her mother and her involvement in Paralympic swimming, Winnard said she’s had plenty of motivation in her life that fuels her to push herself and help others.

Meanwhile, her professors said it was often Winnard who was the good example in the classroom.

“I was so pleased with her undergraduate performance because she was always ahead of her classmates in reading the materials, constantly asked great questions, and always turned in quality work,” said Associate Professor Brenda Wiggins, academic program co-coordinator of the Recreation Management program at Mason. “Her writing skills were impeccable, and she had lots of good volunteer experiences.”

For Winnard, her efforts in settings like work, in the classroom, and swimming have all been related in a way. That’s part of the reason she said she got back into swimming.

“What I like about swimming is you’re competing against yourself. I just work to cut down on my times,” she said. “But just going to the competitions and seeing other people and how good they are really can motivate you.”