Laura Vilela and her 5-year-old son, Luke, who has developmental disabilities, were among the participants in the Cinco de Mayo 5K run hosted by Four Rivers Area Family YMCA last month. They arrived wearing matching bright green T-shirts for their group, All Abilities Athletics, and she explained to him what he should expect.
“I told Luke it was a 5K run, and he took that literally. He didn’t stop running the entire route,” said Vilela, with a smile. “He didn’t go the shorter route. He went where everyone else in the front went. And he finished the 5K. He would stop and get a breath, say, ‘I can do it.’ And then he would run again.
“He took a tumble, skinned up his hands and knees, but blew it off. I always tell him to ‘rub some tough on it,’ and he literally did,” said Vilela, proudly.
As a physical education teacher, Vilela, Washington, knows the benefits that physical exercise and sports provide to anyone who plays them.
There’s the physical benefits of building muscle strength and coordination, developing gross and fine motor skills, controlling weight, boosting immunity and improving sleep.
There’s also the mental and emotional benefits of building self-esteem and confidence, providing an outlet for energy that helps improve focus, developing friendships and learning how to work as a team.
None of that changes for children who have special needs, like autism, Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, sensory processing disorder, attention deficit disorder, brain and spinal cord injuries or any other developmental disability, said Vilela.
“It’s really important that we get these kids out and moving,” she said.
That can be easier said than done. Sports programs that are designed for neurotypical children are not necessarily suitable for children with disabilities, who have slower reaction times or can’t participate in the same way.
Because of that or any number of other reasons, parents of children with disabilities might instinctively hold them back from sports, said Chris Homyk, Washington, whose 11-year-old son, Eli, has autism and is nonverbal.
He and his wife did that at first with Eli, but once they got him involved in a sports program designed for children with special needs and began seeing the benefits, they wished they had done it sooner.
The St. Louis Challenger Baseball program in Pacific was the first one they tried, and it was memorable.
“The first time Eli was there and his buddy helped him hit the ball, and he ran around the bases, he had a big smile because everybody was cheering for him, and I was like, ‘Wow! This is pretty awesome,’ ” said Homyk.
The family learned of other programs for children with special needs and got involved in several of them, including the Washington University Bear Cub Track team, SPENSA Soccer at St. Louis Soccer Park, Kids Enjoy Exercise Now (KEEN) at St. Louis University High School and St. Cletus, and Team Activities for Special Kids (TASK) in Fenton.
They are all great programs, but all of them, except for the Challenger Baseball program, involve driving into St. Louis County or farther.
For a lot of families living in Franklin County, that’s just not possible, said Homyk. So last January, he was inspired to create a local sports program for children with special needs.
“We started walking at the beginning of the year just to get some exercise. We went to the track, and there was a soccer ball there. Eli started dribbling it, and I was like, ‘Whoa! Let’s go all the way around the track,’ ” said Homyk. “Then I started to think about how many kids are there like Eli who don’t get this chance? Why don’t we try to start this here?”
He shared the idea with his wife, and with her support they began bringing people together to make it happen.
Steven Lyles, Washington, who is providing photography, video and promotion services for the new organization, was eager to get involved. As the father of a 6-year-old son with special needs, he sees the need.
“Every boy and girl loves to kick a ball. Some just kick it better or differently than others,” said Lyles. “Kids with special needs essentially need a different environment for them to be able to play at their ability.
“We needed a platform for them to have sports, have fitness as part of their development, and have fun,” he said, noting it’s important never to underestimate what a person with special needs can do.
“We were told (Garrett) would never walk, but now he’s running and kicking balls,” said Lyles.
Provide ‘Ultimate Sports Opportunities’
All Abilities Athletics is now an IRS-approved, 501(c)(3) organization designed to provide “ultimate sports opportunities” for children with special needs in Franklin, Gasconade and Warren counties.
The program will offer year-round sports opportunities including soccer, track, kickball, bowling and open play sports, said Katelyn Biermann, a special education teacher who is working with Vilela to organize the group’s event days.
The next event day will be this Saturday, June 10, at the St. Francis Borgia Regional High School field. See sidebar story for the complete upcoming schedule.
Events will be held on Saturdays and Sundays and each one will last about an hour. Plans are to move the location of events around the county, especially once the school year begins again in the fall and the high school fields are in use.
“We are going to do seasonal sports,” said Biermann. “We’ll have a season of soccer, then of kickball, season of track.
“There will be stations, like a scrimmage area for those who are capable of scrimmaging and an area where they can just free play with the soccer ball,” Biermann said. “If they get bored with one station, they can move on to the next.”
There will be an obstacle course station and also a sensory station that will include things like bubbles and sand, balls to roll on and beanbag chairs to sit in.
“Sometimes they just need a break to calm down or cool down,” said Vilela.
Children ages 4 to 5 on up who have special needs are invited to participate. There is no charge and registration is not necessary.
Siblings of the athletes with special needs can participate.
The key to making All Abilities Athletics a success lies in its volunteers. The organization is 100 percent volunteer led.
The goal is to have at least two volunteers for every athlete at each event to help them participate and learn the activity and be successful, said Homyk. Already there are more than a dozen professional therapists and teachers who work with children with special needs volunteering in the program.
“On the parent end, that allows me not to be so much of a helicopter mom while he’s playing sports,” said Vilela. “It gives him a little bit of independence.”
At the first All Abilities Athletics event held May 7 at WHS, there were around 26 kids with special needs and 75 to 80 volunteer helpers. People came from Washington, Union, St. Clair, Marthasville and beyond.
Plans are underway to establish an All Abilities Athletics program in Sullivan.
And the numbers continue to grow. Currently the program has around 40 athletes and more than 100 volunteers. Still more volunteers are welcome and needed.
“We want people who have a positive attitude, enthusiasm, and are energetic,” said Homyk.
Neurotypical students who are in middle school, high school and college and anyone with experience and training in special education are ideal candidates.
Getting neurotypical kids to interact and work with kids with special needs to interact more reduces the likelihood of bullying at school and elsewhere because people get to know each other as friends, said Homyk.
How You Can Help
In addition to more volunteers, All Abilities Athletics welcomes more people joining as members to help develop and expand the program so it can help as many individuals as possible.
Donations of both cash and athletic equipment also are needed.
All Abilities Athletics hopes to be one option for families with children who have special needs and in the future would like to team up with other similar organizations for events.
“We are not opposed to those other groups; We just want to be another option for families,” said Homyk.
For more information on All Abilities Athletics, go to www.allabilitiesathletics.org.