Special Needs

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Inside Sports Camps for Young Athletes with Physical Challenges

5 Sep, 2018

By: Michael Popke

As another summer comes to a close, it’s worth noting the significant impact sports camps made for children with special needs — from the Ivan Lendl Adaptive Sports Campin Berlin, Conn., tothe Junior Wheelchair Sports and Recreation Camp in Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Bounce Out the Stigma, a basketball day camp held in more than 20 states for young campers with epilepsy, autism, ADHD and Down Syndrome.

“The skills they learn here translate to the outside world,” Dena Russell, a New Jersey mother of 13-year-old twins who participated in a Bounce Out the Stigma event at the Down Town Sports Basketball Center in Mahwah, N.J., told theNew York Postin August ; the event was attended by 34 kids who learned how to dribble, shoot and weave through obstacle courses. “They’re not just learning about basketball. It’s sharing, coordination, physical things and socializing.”

Now in its 13th season, Bounce Out the Stigma is the brainchild of Mike Simmel, who was raised in New Jersey and diagnosed with epilepsy at age 2. According to the Post, “he spent many of his younger years wearing a helmet to protect him from injury, in case he had a seizure. He was eventually able to control the disease with medication. By the time he turned 16, he’d gone nearly a decade without having a major seizure — and had developed a passion for basketball. But epilepsy came between him and the sport he loved. The summer before his junior year of high school, Simmel was attending a basketball camp when he blacked out in the shower and started convulsing. When he came to, he learned that he had suffered a massive grand mal seizure.”

The camp’s administrators kicked him out. “The director called my dad and said, ‘You have to come get your son, because we can’t have him [here],’” Simmel told the Post. “I felt isolated and hurt.”

Now, Simmel, his mother, his aunt, two special education teachers, specially trained volunteers and a longtime school nurse run Bounce Out the Stigma, whose mission is to “empower challenged youth to believe they can, and erase the stigma from those who believe they can’t.”

The Hospital for Special Care’s Ivan Lendl Adaptive Sports Camp, which has been held at such sites as the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Conn., and Berlin (Conn.) High School, developed out of a similar necessity.

The camp was founded in 1991 when Janeace Slifka’s son John, who was born with spina bifida, wanted to play tennis. At the time, there were no adaptive sports camps on the East Coast, according to the New Britain Herald. Through a number of connections — including tennis legend Ivan Lendl, who has a home in Connecticut — Slifka was able to develop a wheelchair tennis program that has evolved considerably over the years.

Campers now are provided instruction in a variety of adaptive sports, including tennis, swimming, track and field, basketball and handcycling. Coaching and instruction is provided by experienced program specialists and athletes living with physical disabilities.

Karin Korb is one of those instructors. “These kids are going to go and be like, ‘Wow, I know how to play tennis,’” Korb, a two-time Paralympian and a 10-time tennis World Team Cup player, told NBCConnecticut.comin August. “Or, ‘I know instructors who play tennis,’ or ‘I have friends who play tennis and if you want to play tennis with me, I can play tennis with you.’”

Indeed, kids who attend Lendl’s camp and others find the experiences invaluable. Mackenzie Haag, a 13-year-old from Fort Wayne, Ind., participated in a dodgeball tournament for the fifth summer in a row this year at the Junior Wheelchair Sports Camp at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich. “You just kind of find out that you will fit in a lot more than you realize because so many people … go through the same things on a day-to-day basis,” Haag told Michigan Radio.

“It’s just wonderful to see how sports helps [kids and adults with disabilities],” added Maria Besta, manager of Wheelchair and Adaptive Sports at the hospital. “It’s a natural support system to them.”

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