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Youth Challenge helps physically disabled children stay active and play sports

Posted at 5:16 PM, Feb 01, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-01 19:18:18-05

WESTLAKE, Ohio — Having a physical disability isn’t stopping Northeast Ohio kids from being active and participating in sports, which is a mindset that is changing lives.

Meet 10-year-old Kate Soder. She was born with a rare genetic disorder known as Joubert Syndrome.

“It's compared a lot to cerebral palsy. Affects balance, coordination, speech,” said Kate’s dad, Chuck Soder.

Kate’s condition makes walking challenging and her dad told News 5 she’s not strong enough to use a wheelchair. Despite all that, she’s learning how to play a modified version of Bocce Ball.

“Kate really, really loves Youth Challenge,” Chuck said.

Kate is one of more than a dozen kids that day, having the time of their life, in the program’s Westlake gym. The kids participate in Youth Challenge, which is a program that adapts sports, so those with physical disabilities can play.

“We can’t find a sport that we can’t adapt to. Literally. From sled hockey and rock climbing and kayaking to fencing and boxing and archery,” said Chief Executive Officer of Youth Challenge, Chris Garr.

The program has been around since 1976 and is free to those participating.

There are roughly 150 kids between ages three and 18, and all those enrolled are able to get free rides to and from sessions, courtesy of paratransit vans that are owned and driven by Youth Challenge.

Youth Challenge alum, Bree Sprenger said it boosted her confidence.

“It really has helped me open-up, like be a new person and allowed me to feel really confident, like my self-esteem has gotten so much better,” she said.

Sprenger started participating at 10-years-old and now volunteers.

Despite being born without her legs and her right arm, it was through this program that Sprenger learned how to swim competitively, advancing to the Paralympics.

“Youth Challenge was huge because it allowed me to have mentors to look up to who live in their own places, who have jobs. So I knew that was a possibility for me,” she said.

And beside every child participating, is a teen volunteer there to help participants learn how to play with their new tools and rules.

“I was a little bit nervous at first because I didn’t know exactly how to do it, but eventually you get the hang of it and it's pretty fun,” said Ben Hallowell, a volunteer of the program.

Garr says the passion is brought with positivity.

“They might come here to get six, eight, 10 hours of service, but boy do they drink the Kool-Aid! And you just fall in love. You fall in love with the culture, the positivity, the inclusion,” says Garr.

Garr told News 5 many volunteers go on to pursue careers in physical therapy, occupational therapy, and social work.

In fact, Garr said volunteering as a teen is how he was introduced to Youth Challenge and it’s also where he met his best friend, Sean.

“It builds community. It builds confidence. It builds problem-solving,” said Garr.

Sprenger can't picture life without the program.

“I can’t imagine my life without youth challenge and I love going every single week like I absolutely love everyone here. They’re my family,” she said.

Youth Challenge accepts children from all over Northeast Ohio and the great part is they provide free paratransit rides to those enrolled in the program.

To connect with Youth Challenge, click here.

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