STARKVILLE — Martha Ann Welch played basketball in high school, so when she found out she was pregnant with a girl, she was excited.
“I was like, ‘She’s gonna be a basketball player!'” Welch recalled.
But Welch’s daughter Emma was born with pyruvate dehydrogenase deficiency. At age 9, Emma can’t walk and has used a wheelchair ever since she got too big for her parents to carry. Unable to participate in sports available to able-bodied kids, Emma hasn’t lived out the vision her mother once had for her.
Until two weeks ago.
On Feb. 2, Emma participated in the Starkville Parks and Recreation Department’s first annual Challenger Basketball Program. The event, held from 2-3 p.m. Sundays through March 1 at the Starkville Sportsplex, is geared toward introducing the sport to children with physical and developmental disabilities.
“It’s something that’s been needed for a long time,” Starkville Parks and Rec Program Supervisor Lisa Cox said. “Everybody needs recreation. It’s just a way to reach out and to have different needs for different populations.”
As of Sunday, Cox estimated 13 children had signed up, but what each child does depends on their unique abilities. Some dribble through multicolored cones or shoot through hula hoops or lowered baskets. For players like Emma, volunteers clad in green Challenger T-shirts set up buckets and tubs on the ground as targets.
As Emma makes her introduction to the sport, she claps loudly and smiles. When she lands a ball in the bucket, everyone cheers.
For Emma, to whom most typical youth sports had all but barred their doors, it’s a “fun time” — and a great opportunity for her family.
“It’s not the vision that I had,” Welch said, “but she gets to get out there and play, so that’s been really cool just to see her do it in her way, (though) not necessarily what I had envisioned.”
A new audience
Mike Sullivan, whose 13-year-old daughter Mary Margaret also uses a wheelchair, said families of children with special needs often feel isolated when it comes to sports. Mary Margaret had often ridden horses in the Elizabeth A. Howard Therapeutic Riding Center in West Point, but she hadn’t gotten to play any other sports before.
With the Challenger program, though, the Sullivans are no longer left out of the loop.
“This gets us all out of the house,” Sullivan said. “There’s able-bodied people there helping too and other families helping. It allows us to be part of the community, more or less. We don’t feel so isolated. We don’t get a whole lot of opportunities to do stuff that caters to special needs kids.”
He and his wife Kelly watched as their 17-year-old daughter, Jenna, held Mary Margaret’s pink wheelchair as she played with volunteer Elizabeth Carranza, a senior at Mississippi State University. Mary Margaret squealed with delight as Carranza gently tossed the orange Spalding basketball in her lap. Mary Margaret is legally blind, but she was still laughing the whole time as she listened to the sound of the ball bouncing and felt its rough texture.
“It just brings joy to my soul,” Sullivan said. “Her face lights up, and just seeing her smile and her eyes light up, it’s something that I can’t put into words.”
Mary Margaret was sick for the first two weeks the program was held, so Sunday was the first time she got to experience the sport. For her family, getting to break the news was the best part.
“‘Hey, baby, we’re going to watch you play basketball today. You’re going to be on a basketball team!'” Sullivan told his daughter before the trip. Afterward, he told her, “‘Maybe next week, you guys are going to have games, and you’re going to start playing against each other.’
“You just see her eyes light up when you tell her something like that, because that’s something that’s probably normally out of reach for special needs kids,” Sullivan said.
No lack of volunteers
And for what effect the program has on the participants and their families, Sullivan said, its impact is similar on its volunteers. Many are MSU students, but plenty are younger — the Sullivans’ son Michael, 11, is one.
So is 11-year-old Hayes Carver, the son of Starkville Alderman Ben Carver. After working with the Challenger participants, Hayes realized he had assumed everyone got to experience the same things when it came to sports.
“He said he took for granted being able to run and jump and play without limitations,” Alderman Carver said. “He felt like he needed to start giving back to those kids and just spend time with them.”
Emily O’Neal, 13, an eighth grader at Starkville Academy, came with her mom, Susan, to volunteer. Working with the program feels “good and rewarding,” Emily said.
“I think it means a lot to the kids,” she said. “It’s fun for them and gives them something to do.”
Able-bodied people often ignore people with disabilities out of fear or not knowing how to treat them, Sullivan said, but the program serves to break down those barriers.
“We’re all perfectly created by God, and we’re all equal in His eyes, but we lose sight of that sometimes,” Sullivan said. “But when you go and play with the special needs kids, you remember, ‘Hey, I’m a child of God again. I matter.'”
‘A bright light for Starkville’
According to Alderman Carver, there’s been so much interest in the program that the parks department ran out of Challenger T-shirts.
“I just want to give a big thank you to Starkville Parks and Rec for recognizing the need for inclusiveness with the sports program to include disabled kids and special needs kids and to recognize, like any other kid, that they have an opportunity to play basketball or softball or whatever their favorite sport is,” Carver said.
Understanding that the program was specifically created for children with disabilities was part of its appeal, Sullivan said.
“That’s what was cool about that: You know it was catered to special needs children, so you know everything was going to be accessible at a level where they could thrive,” he said.
“I just think this is a bright light for Starkville,” he added. “I think this is something that you can’t go wrong with.”
For Welch, the feeling was similar — the city considered families with children shut out from activities that able-bodied kids can do.
“Somebody thought about this group of people that don’t get thought about, so it gives them the option to go out and play to whatever ability they can play,” Welch said.
The program, simply put, is “uninhibited fun” for its participants, Sullivan said.
“These kids, the joy that comes across their face when they get to hold a ball or bounce a ball or make a basket?” he said. “You can’t put a price tag on that.”
To sign up for Challenger, contact Cox or parks and rec executive director Gerry Logan at 662-323-2294.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.