Associations’ special-needs sports leagues help extraordinary children
A boy races up to the basket, dribbling furiously. He takes a shot and scores. An ordinary experience for many young boys and girls, but, rest assured, this shot was extraordinary.
This 13-year-old boy is blind, and with the help of a special ball that beeps to help signal its location, he is just one of 36 children with disabilities experiencing the joy of sports this season through Wesley Chapel-Weddington Athletic Association’s Challenger Sports League.
“Many of these kids have older brothers and sisters who play sports, and they want to play, too, ” Challenger League Basketball Commissioner Mark Cheek explained. “We make it work for all of them.”
This was certainly the case for Gina and John Fisher, whose son Heath repeatedly asked when he would get his turn to play the game he had heard his brother play for years.
One day, the Fishers decided enough was enough, and Heath need to play ball, too. The Fishers fielded their first baseball team in the fall of 2007, and Challenger Sports was born.
“We began to do some research in the spring of 2007, and magically, it was all there, ” Gina Fisher recalled.
Little League International, the national organization that oversees youth baseball teams around the country, had launched a program for disabled children, John Fisher explained. When he approached the folks at the athletic association’s Optimist Park with the idea of a baseball league for disabled children, they quickly embraced it.
While it has not always been smooth sailing, they have learned a lot along the way. “We started out with one group of kids between the ages of 5 and 22, ” Gina Fisher recalled. Between the wide age ranges, the different levels of disabilities and all the people on the field, those first games were “a bit chaotic.”
By the next spring, however, the adults had divided the league into two divisions to better group children by skill level.
More and more sports
“We sent out a parent survey after the first season, ” John Fisher said. “It showed us that these families wanted more.”
Bowling and basketball quickly followed, and more sports are coming. “We are in conversations with Pop Warner Football as well as with groups for soccer, ” John Fisher said.
Today, the Challenger League has its own volunteer board responsible for administration and fundraising, and volunteers serve as coaches and/or “buddies” to assist athletes during games.
The Challenger League welcomes any child who takes an interest. As a result, the league represents a wide range of physical and mental disabilities, ages and degrees of impairment. Each team member receives a uniform, a trophy, lots of instruction and some well-deserved recognition at the end of the season.
“The coaches have us run laps, stretch and do drills, ” 13-year-old Parker Cheek said. Cheek plays basketball, bowling and baseball, despite his autism. “I learned you have to exercise to get better.”
While Challenger Sports provides sporting opportunities to those with special needs, the children aren’t the only ones rewarded. “They pay you back in spades, ” Mark Cheek, the league commissioner, said. “When you see them having fun, it is worth all the time and effort you have put into it.”
The league needs more volunteers including sponsors, buddies and coaches – to keep the league running and still affordable. Volunteers do not need to have a disabled family member, Gina Fisher said, and the league has parents of nondisabled children in its ranks as well.
To volunteer or learn more about the program, go to the Wesley Chapel-Weddington Athletic Association’s website, www.wcwaa.org, and click on the Challenger Sports–Special Needs tab.
“You just need the heart to do it, ” Mark Cheek said. “That’s what these kids need to reach them.”
His son Parker’s favorite part? “You get to play … play a lot.”