I got lucky last year. My daughter Julie, then 16, who has spent a lot of time with kids with special needs, and who wants to major in special education in college, invited me to come with her one Sunday afternoon to help out at our local Challenger basketball program.
Julie had been volunteering at the Challenger program for quite a while, driven there by her slightly older friend who already had a driver’s license. So, I hadn’t been to the gym with Julie before the day she made the suggestion.
The first time I walked in to the crowded gym, my eyes went to center court where I saw a teen standing near a boy in a wheelchair. The boy was shooting basketballs at a low-hanging hoop and the teen was retrieving the rebounds so the boy could take his next shot.
Around the perimeter of the gym I saw dozens of kids with special needs, each paired with a teen volunteer. The teens often pair up with the same child each week, because in most cases the teen has fallen in love their partner — and vice versa. When one of the teen volunteers can’t make it, another teen is usually there to take his/her place. Or maybe an adult, like me.
For the rest of the season, I went to the gym to help each week that I didn’t already have a prior engagement. On some Sundays I was paired with a child. On other Sundays there were so many volunteers that I stood in the middle of the gym and provided general assistance — retrieving errant balls and helping out wherever I saw that help was needed.
I loved working with the kids one-on-one. I also loved the days when I got to stand in the middle and soak it all in. It’s wonderful to look around at these special kids enjoying basketball like other kids get to; to see the teen volunteers learning about leadership at a young age; and to glance at the parents in the bleachers getting a great deal of joy (and a little bit of much-needed rest) watching their kids enjoying basketball.
In the gym this year, I also love to watch the group of guys who started our local program, including one in particular who acts as chief, cook, and bottle washer — from sign-ups, to arranging for gym time, to recruiting teen volunteers, to running around the gym helping, guiding, and getting tremendous satisfaction from the difference he and the others are making in our community.
I found this three-minute news clip about a Challenger basketball program. Check it out. It will give you a good flavor of what these programs are like. If you’re at all like me, grab a tissue before you watch.
If your community has a Challenger program, get involved with it. If not, be a leader — start a program in your town today!
p.s. Softball is my game, so I was very happy to learn about our town’s Challenger baseball program last spring. The official little league web site has information about Challenger. Also, I found a great piece with wonderful information about Challenger baseball (Some of the information may be a bit old, for example the contact information.)
I didn’t find general information about Challenger soccer. It definitely exists, so look for it in your area.