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Advantage: kids

SOLON– One local non-profit organization has been serving up some options for children and teens during this year’s winter break.
Sportability of Iowa held a tennis camp in Solon Dec. 27-29, but not just to help kids better their backhands, strengthen their strokes and ace their serves.
Skills learned in Sportability activities go beyond the courts, fields and tracks, to help people of all ages enhance their lives.
Founded two years ago this month, Sportability of Iowa provides inclusive and adaptive sports and recreational programs for people with disabilities or other difficulties. Its mission is to “help people enjoy competitive and recreational activities without limitations or barriers, while experiencing independence and socialization.”
That’s a lot of words to describe what Executive Director Beth Ward puts a little more simply.
“It’s designed to help kids be more successful,” said Ward.
The three-day tennis camp experienced a bit of a backspin at first, when the tennis instructor got the flu. However, Reggie Morrow owner of Reggie’s Weenies in Solon, had a bit of tennis experience and a brother who is also a former tennis pro. Morrow filled in at the tennis camp, and the action was soon in full swing. Kids were able to do hitting drills, practice serving and engage in other fun activities with tennis racquets and foam balls that are softer, slower and bigger than regulation tennis balls.
The difference in equipment is one way Sportability adapts for differing abilities of its participants.
“Sportability is great for kids that may be intellectually too high to qualify for Special Olympics, but also may not quite fit into mainstream sports competitions,” said Ward. Sportability participants might have physical disabilities, or they may have other conditions that present difficulties when playing competitive sports. For example, Ward said, they may have severe AD/HD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), Cerebral Palsy, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or be undergoing dramatic changes in their home or family lives.
“Our mission has always been to serve those with physical disabilities, but as we have grown, we realize we can provide outreach for kids of all kinds,” Ward said. “Inclusive sports opportunities help build a better understanding of our differences, and yet emphasizes our similarities.”
Building understanding is one reason Ward brought wheelchairs to the tennis camp, and allowed ambulatory kids to give tennis a try while on wheels.
“It gives them a real feel for what it is like for those kids who are always in wheelchairs,” said Ward. And in events like wheelchair basketball, where every player is equally seated, Ward added, it allows people to be seen for their strengths and abilities, and not just as someone in a wheelchair.
Sportability activities also provide opportunities to improve strength, coordination, and cardiovascular fitness, as well as social skills.
“We teach the basic sports skills, and provide all kinds of adaptive sports equipment,” said Ward, “but we also work on things like manners, responsibility and interaction. It’s all about encouraging and rewarding the effort. We want to break the cycle of learned helplessness.”
With choices of sports like cycling, fishing, kayaking, swimming, table tennis, cross-country skiing, billiards, wheelchair tennis, wheelchair basketball and wheelchair softball, Sportability has options for just about any athletic aspiration. One of Sportability’s most successful sports offerings has been archery, noted Ward.
“Archery is awesome, for everyone from ages 7 and up, including the elderly. It teaches discipline, precision and concentration,” she said. Adjustable bows range in pull strength from 9 pounds to 24 pounds to accommodate a wide range of abilities. “Within a few days, we can get kids up and running to have immediate success at archery, and that builds self-esteem and confidence.” Currently, Sportability has two clients who are on track to be Paralympic competitors in archery, Ward added.
The organization also does a lot of work with veterans, with or without disabilities, and their families. Former Army National Guard veteran Beth Ann Bitner helped out at the recent Solon camp, and is a frequent Sportabilty volunteer. She met Sportability of Iowa Program Director Sherri Hildebrand in a class they shared at the University of Iowa.
“I had wanted to open my own facility for disabled veterans, and when I met Sherri, she told me about Sportability,” said Bitner. “I am active in the U of I Veteran’s Association and am a recreational management major, so this was a good fit for me. I volunteered and just fell in love with it.”
Whether competing, training, volunteering, learning a sport or just having fun with friends, Sportability participants get opportunities that might be otherwise missed in a more mainstream setting. While its camps do impose fees, a large number of participants are able to attend on scholarships provided by Sportability sponsors and partners. “We have a lot of kids from working families, but times are tough,” she said.
“We really appreciate the support we get from our communities,” said Ward. She thanked Morrow for teaching tennis skills, Savvy Coffee and Wine Bar of Solon for giving free lunches to all the participants in the three-day camp, and Solon United Methodist Church, which provided gym space for the camp free of charge.
The next Sportability of Iowa event will be offered in conjunction with Iowa City Parks and Recreation. The Seasonal Sport Sampler will offer a different Paralympic sport each month, so participants can try a number of activities and hopefully find one they enjoy enough to stick with for life. Sports include swimming, archery, golf, tennis, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair softball, billiards, table tennis, goalball, sitting volleyball and boccia. Visit the website for dates, times, and locations, at www.Sportabilityofiowa.org.
In June, Sportability of Iowa will hold a summer camping experience– CampAbility– at Lake Macbride State Park, with activities like kayaking, canoeing, archery and fishing.
Ward was as excited about the possibilities as any of the children wheeling and running and squealing with laughter in the gym behind her.
“Most kids are capable of great things,” said Ward. “A lot of big challenges can be met by people who simply give it their all.”