Facebook Twitter

Wheelchair sports camp shows what’s possible

Austin Clark plays organized basketball, swims, fishes, water skis, bowls, plays tennis, and wants to start doing martial arts. Yet for all of that, his mom noticed that in the past year the 12-year-old is starting to get a little chunky, and she’s concerned.

“He has trouble eating certain foods,” said his mother, Stacy Clark of Westminster. “Unfortunately, the healthier foods are hard for him to eat. So he gravitates to bad foods. And then he can’t get out and run and work off those extra calories.”

Like many children born with spina bifida, Austin gags easily, so diet is an ongoing concern. So is exercise. His sports-minded family wants him involved in as many physical activities as possible. But what’s a kid in a wheelchair supposed to do for fun and exercise?

That’s exactly what the 28th annual Colorado Junior Wheelchair Sports Camp, going on this week at Aurora Central High School, hopes to address.

Sports camp is free, and fun

More than 100 physically disabled youngsters aged 5-18 from across Colorado have enrolled in the camp, which is free to participants. Coached by adult wheelchair athletes and community volunteers, the children will spend the week learning to play sled hockey, softball, basketball, rugby and tennis, not to mention archery, bowling, hand cycling, fencing, bocce, swimming, kayaking and taekwondo.

“They go home totally exhausted because they’re playing all day,” said Patricia Morrison-Hughes, volunteer coordinator for the camp and a retired adaptive physical education teacher. “But it’s neat that they’re playing with kids who are like them. That doesn’t happen a lot. And the research shows that children with disabilities have fewer recreational opportunities because they often don’t have the friends down the street they can go do stuff with.”

“These kids don’t have as many opportunities to do healthy activity,” Morrison-Hughes said. “As the obesity epidemic in this country grows, these kids are right in the middle of it. This camp is to say ‘Hey, we do have some activities for these kids.’ The opportunities have grown and flourished for our kids with disabilities.”

A sedentary lifestyle contributes to obesity among children of all ability levels. But the results can be especially damaging to children in wheelchairs because they don’t burn as many calories as children who are ambulatory, and a lack of muscle mass complicates the calorie-burning equation even further.

Moving away from food rewards

And since physically disabled children face so many limitations in other areas, their parents often fall back on rewarding them with food, thus increasing the risk of obesity still more.

Morrison-Hughes says the camp is just as important for the parents as it is for the children, because it opens adult eyes to what’s possible.

“It gives them opportunities to carry forth, to provide healthy lifestyles for their children,” she said. “When they see all the things their kids can do, they’re blown away. A lot will coddle their kids because they don’t know all that’s out there for them. Our goal is to provide information on all the different avenues out there for them to be healthy.”

Austin has been coming to the camp since he was 4, and it’s where he learned he could play basketball. Now he plays on the Denver Rolling Nuggets junior varsity squad, a wheelchair basketball team that this year played in the Wheelchair Basketball national tournament.

“It’s my favorite sport now,” he said, during a break in his swimming class on Tuesday. “And bocce. I like that. I just tried that for the first time.”

“I put him in everything I can,” said Stacy Clark. “It’s the best thing for him. It builds self-confidence and self-esteem, and he learns good sportsmanship.”

On the other side of the pool, one of the youngest campers, 5-year-old Madisyn Lyndahl, was joyfully paddling a little pink kayak around the pool under the watchful supervision of a coach.

Poolside, her mom, Erin Lindahl of Aurora, anxiously looked on.

“She loves it,” Lindahl said. “And I want her to be involved in sports, to be around other kids, to know she’s not the only one in a wheelchair.”

Action in the gymnasium

Syndeatra Allen, of Aurora, wants her daughter, Ziar, 7, to have the experience of playing actively with other disabled children.

Syndeatra Allen, of Aurora, wants her daughter, Ziar, 7, to have the experience of playing actively with other disabled children.

In the gym, 7-year-old Ziar Allen was taking aim at a much-lowered basketball hoop while her mother, Syndeatra Allen of Aurora, chased after wayward balls and provided encouragement.

“I want her to get out more,” Allen said. “Her brothers take her to the park, and she likes to play outside, but I really wanted her to come here to meet new people and to enjoy herself this week.”

In another gym, A.J. Nagle, a member of the Denver Harlequins wheelchair rugby team, was teaching youngsters the ins and outs of one of sports’ most grueling games. In a wheelchair for the past six years, he was introduced to the sport five years ago while a patient at Craig Hospital, and it has proven an enormous blessing for him.

“This has been such a great opportunity for me to get involved in team sports,” said Nagle. “I was hooked right from the start. For these kids, a sport like this can really provide them benefits of exercise and staying healthy.”

Morrison-Hughes notes that Colorado is blessed with far more opportunities for physical activities for wheelchair-bound and other physically disabled young people than most places. Colorado is home to the National Sports Center for the Disabled as well as numerous other agencies offering adaptive sports programs.

But even when parents know about these programs, challenges remain. Getting able-bodied kids to soccer practice is a major commitment. Getting a physically disabled child to a team practice that’s on the other side of the metro area can be beyond the means of many parents.

“So these kids get lost,” Morrison-Hughes said. “There’s such a small population of kids in wheelchairs. So for some of these kids, this is the only physical activity they’ll get, and they’ll spend the rest of the summer sitting in the house because they can’t go out and play like everybody else.”

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.