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Youth Challenge

by Mackenzie Maglic

From the Editor: Communities across the country have developed programs that provide children with disabilities the opportunity to take part in sports and other activities. One such program, offering a wide range of options for kids and teens, is Youth Challenge in the Greater Cleveland area.

Two kids stand in a farmyard with pens of ducks and turkeys.Youth Challenge (YC) is a nonprofit organization in Westlake, Ohio. The program brings together children with physical disabilities and youth volunteers who enrich each other's lives through one-on-one participation in adapted sports and recreational activities. Last year, YC began outreach for blind and visually impaired children to start up a grassroots goalball program in partnership with the United States Association of Blind Athletes.

Goalball is a Paralympic sport that is played by athletes who are visually impaired. The objective is to throw a ball into the opponent's goal. The regulation ball has bells inside, permitting players to locate it by ear.

The outreach was a huge success. After just one goalball practice, the excitement spread, and more and more interested participants signed up. Soon we formed a team of nine boys and girls who are committed to weekly practices.

The parents of the team members frequently express their appreciation for this program. They have shared many stories about what Youth Challenge means to their children. One mother told us that she had to bribe her eight-year-old son to come to his first goalball practice. He had tried several other sports and strongly disliked them all. His mother promised him a trip to the store after the goalball practice.

After ten minutes of goalball, the boy was all smiles. He had a fantastic time with his teammates, the volunteers, and the coaches. Following practice he told his mom and his coach how much he loves goalball and wants to be in the Paralympic Games someday.

The next morning, the coach received an email from the boy's mother. She said that her son would like a goalball for his upcoming birthday, and she asked for suggestions on where to purchase one. It was great to receive such positive feedback! We hear many similar stories from the other children and their families.

Youth Challenge strives to meet the interests and needs of our athletes. It is evident that there is a shortage of opportunities in the area for blind and visually impaired youth to participate in team sports with their peers of similar abilities. Dedicated teen volunteers attend each practice to serve as guides and sports assistants. A typical goalball practice includes athletes practicing a set of drills to work on their throwing, blocking, and court orientation skills. This practice is followed by some game play. As a tradition that started on our first day, practices always end with a few jokes and a snack. Most of the jokes are made up by the athletes on the spot. It's great to conclude a practice by enjoying a few laughs together!

Laughing group of kids and counselors prepare to go down a slide.The camaraderie that has grown among the participants, volunteers, coaches, and parents has built an ideal team environment. Every practice is full of smiles, hard work, education, and friendship. Strong bonds have developed between the parents of team members. Parents enjoy coming to practice and mingling with other parents. They love to watch their children take part in sports that are designed so they can participate fully.

Several members of the team told us they also wanted to play soccer. Youth Challenge has now started a five-a-side soccer team for children with visual impairments. After having so much fun and success with goalball and soccer, the participants now take part in general YC recreational programs throughout the year. The team members have joined YC for swimming, horseback riding, and outings to the nature center and the Cleveland Zoo. YC also offers art, bowling, rock climbing, dance, drama, and a variety of sports such as archery, cycling, swimming, fencing, table tennis, volleyball, powerlifting, and more.  Each program is unique and allows participants to foster friendships in an inclusive environment that incorporates adaptations and modifications as needed.

Youth Challenge is excited about the recent purchase of several tandem bicycles. We will soon offer cycling to the children with visual impairments at a program called Run 'n Roll. At Run 'n Roll, participants will be able to engage in both cycling and running. The energy level of the goalball team is always at the maximum, and the players take a particular liking to running.

Youth Challenge is in the process of developing a strategic plan for beginning a YC track-and-field program. This program will be another great opportunity for visually impaired children. Goalball has planted the seed for children with visual impairments in the Greater Cleveland area to engage in team sports. More importantly, it has allowed the participants to meet new friends and have an assortment of fun experiences. Youth Challenge will continue to offer new and exciting opportunities for children and young adults with visual impairments.

Currently more than 170 participants with disabilities and a pool of more than 450 teen volunteers are involved with YC. The high-energy, positive, and nurturing atmosphere opens opportunities for these young people to learn about themselves and others, develop skills, and achieve success that they never dreamed possible.

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