Ability First Sports Camp Provides Opportunities for the Physically Handicapped – Chico Enterprise-Record
DURHAM — Every year since 1985, Ability First Sports Camps has offered young people with physical disabilities the opportunity to attend a summer sports camp.
It’s director Eric Snedeker’s belief that children with physical disabilities are often herded into camps that are designed more for children with developmental disabilities rather than just physical disabilities, and he wanted to change that.
Snedeker designed a camp in which campers would learn a variety of sports, including wheelchair rugby, wheelchair basketball, seated waterskiing, and cycling.
The four-day camp ran from Thursday to Sunday and began with registration and an opening ceremony at SkyLake Ranch in Durham, including skill drills, scrums and meals provided by local Chico restaurants. . It ended with a closing ceremony held at Chico High School.
For the past few years, camp has been overnight with students staying in Chico State dorms. When the camp started in 1985, there were about 15 campers. In more recent overnight camps, the number has increased to 35-40 children.
This year there were about 20 kids in attendance, which Snedeker said was a good number since it was a day camp. Students came primarily from Butte and Glenn County, but some came from as far away as Las Vegas, Idaho, Oregon, Eureka, and San Diego. A parent arrived at the start of camp Thursday from Corning and said she had researched wheelchair basketball for her son and planned that she should at least go somewhere near Sacramento, but that she was thrilled to see Ability First’s roots in Chico.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Snedeker designed what he called a hybrid camp in 2022, where students attended camp from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and returned the next day.
It was a return to camp for many who had attended in years past, after camp was forced to be canceled in 2020 and 2021.
“I really like overnight camps more because you can interact more with friends, like in dorms and I really miss that part,” said camper Bailey Burkhart. “They’ll wake you up with loud music and stuff like that, it’s just super fun and that’s a part I miss but it’s definitely better than nothing.”
Burkhart was attending the camp for her third year, her first attendance in 2018. She can walk 20% of the time, but is fine-tuned to her wheelchair most of the time.
Burkhart loves the adaptive water skiing that kids can enjoy at camp, where campers are inserted into a sit-ski and a rope is inserted into a notch in the ski. If campers have the ability to hold the rope, which many do, then they can pull the rope from the notch and hold on as the boat pulls them around SkyLake Ranch’s private lake.
Each camper when towed on the water ski is followed by a jet ski with two people on board. The person on the back of the jet ski is called the “jumper”, and their job is to jump into the water when a camper lets go of the rope or falls into it, and then stabilize the camper.
“I didn’t even know I would be able to do water skiing or basketball or something like that or rugby until I came across Ability First,” Burkhart said. “It created a lot of opportunities for me, like when I went surfing a few years ago and I never thought I could do that.”
In addition to the campers, there are approximately 30 staff members, two nurses and 20 coaches who also volunteer their time. Snedeker said many coaches hold world records in wheelchair sports.
Counselor Brooke Uribe, a special education teacher, joined Ability First in 2007 as a recreation therapy student at Chico State. She loves what it offers the community in terms of self-defense and how it allows people to meet and socialize with others in a variety of sports.
“It bridges the gap between community and recreation,” Uribe said. “I think integration and inclusion in the community is really important and that’s something I strive for with my students. Really trying to give them opportunities in the community, not just for themselves, but for the community as a whole.
Abby Dunn, 19, is a former camper at Ability First and is now a basketball coach at Ability First camps. She has worked with Ability First for 5½ years and started working with the programs eight months after she was diagnosed with polio leg virus – a virus that paralyzed her legs. Dunn was a gymnast and soccer player growing up and was recommended to Ability First by Shriners Hospital for Children following her injury.
Thanks in part to Ability First, Dunn was able to secure a scholarship to the University of Arizona and is on the women’s wheelchair basketball team as well as the Wildcats adaptive track team. Dunn competes in the 100, 200, 400 and will do a 10k in October.
“Finding something like this was extremely important and I wouldn’t be a varsity athlete without Ability First,” Dunn said. “It definitely helped me as an athlete. It’s incredibly helpful for your mental and physical health as a disabled person – it helps everything.
Dunn said she didn’t realize there were scholarships, college or international levels of disability sports before Ability First and that it opened up a “whole new world”.
“I come back every summer because this summer I get to help new athletes and I also love the community we have at Ability First,” Dunn said.
Snedeker, who originally worked with Chico State’s Adaptive Physical Education program for 13 years after initially wanting to be a physical therapist, says his favorite part of the camps is watching the excitement on kids’ faces when they realize that they are able to play sports. . He loves watching kids learn skills from professional coaches and bringing them back to their communities, telling their PE teachers that they don’t want adaptive PE anymore.
He encourages physical education teachers to let children in wheelchairs play tennis but get two rebounds against an able-bodied person who gets one. People who play wheelchair basketball get two pushes on a wheelchair before they have to bounce the ball or have it move, and the three in the key rule is increased to five in the key for those in wheelchair due to lateral movement.
At Alpine Meadows in Lake Tahoe, there is a Tahoe Disabled Ski Program that the staff at Ability First encourages.
“We’re teaching these kids to stand up for themselves and go back to their communities and keep doing these things all year round,” Snedeker said. “Our biggest goal is to be as independent as possible. You can do whatever you choose to do and a lot of parents of these kids come with the medical model trying to fix them. We are not looking to fix, we want to let them live and learn to move and participate to the best of their abilities. We don’t call it a handicap – we say go ahead and find out your ability and see what you can do and we’ll help you with the rest.