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The Y Challenger program for children and young adults with special needs shines as an example of how participating in healthy activities can result in not only improved physical fitness but also personal growth, fun and friendships. Individuals 4-30+ years of age with physical, developmental and intellectual disabilities have the opportunity to learn, grow and thrive through recreational and social opportunities.
The YMCA Challenger program does much more than give kids of all abilities the opportunity to play sports, learn to swim and try something new. It’s about being active, being part of a team, learning new skills, and perhaps most of all, making friends.
Challenger has grown dramatically since the first program was offered in 2006. Activities continue to expand, going beyond sports to include social activities for young adults. In 2010, the one-of-a-kind, all-accessible Fred and Shirley Pryor YMCA Challenger Sports Complex opened. This innovative program has become a model for Ys and other organizations around the country.
While much has changed, the heart of the program remains the same. Each week, families and volunteers come together to give kids with diverse needs the opportunity to be active in sports, social and recreational activities. They create memories and friendships that will last a lifetime.
Many kids who were learning a Challenger sport for the first time when the program launched are still with us today, participating in field trips, dances and more as part of young adult social activities.
THE FRAZIER FAMILY'S
From the very first YMCA Challenger baseball game a decade ago in 2006, the Frazier family has been part of the program. Rick Frazier said his family stumbled into Challenger as a resource for his son, Max, who has special needs.
“Sometimes when you’re a family with special needs it’s very isolating,” Rick said.
But with YMCA Challenger, he and his wife, Cornelia, found support for Max and for the entire family, which also includes their son, Jack.
“We found other families going through similar experiences, and we could share resources with each other,” Rick said.
They also found a supportive staff. Rick recalls that in the early days of the program, at the request of families, staff ordered softer cotton shirts for the kids, which would be more comfortable for those with sensory issues.
“They want to learn from us, too,” Rick said of the staff, who not only responded to feedback but asked what else they could do to make it a better experience for kids and their families.
Soon, the Fraziers were all involved in Challenger—Max playing every sport, his brother Jack supporting him as his Challenger Buddy on the field or on the court, Rick as a coach, and Cornelia volunteering at Challenger fundraisers.
Throughout the past 10 years, Max, now 20 years old, has continued to thrive. Not only has the program helped him learn new skills, such as dribbling a soccer ball down the field, but just as beneficial have been the social opportunities.
“Max has always been really social,” Rick said. “As social as he is, with his condition, he does sometimes withdraw. Challenger has really helped give him a structured outlet. It’s also established a big network for him of people he’s known for years.”
At Max’s side during the past 10 years has been his brother, Jack, now 18. He started volunteering because he knew Max better than anyone and wanted him to have fun at sports. “It has been great to get to know the other kids and see how Max and his friends have such a great time, and know that I can be a small part of that,” Jack said.
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