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Russellville Parks and Rec considers special-needs programming

Four-year-old Makynzie has some problems with her speech. She faces intellectual and physical challenges that make it hard for her to do the same things other 4-year-olds can do. But when her parents showed her a Youtube video of people her age playing T-Ball, she was excited. “I play too!” she said.

So Makynzie is one of more than a hundred children playing T-Ball through the Russellville Parks and Recreation Department, but grandmother Kim Adams said she and Makynzie’s parents can’t help but be a little concerned. Will she be able to keep up with the other children? Will other parents be frustrated or impatient if she slows down the game, or doesn’t play correctly?

With these concerns, and her limitations, in mind, Adams and mother Beth Hatton decided to talk to Parks and Rec director Chad Sears about starting a program in Russellville dedicated to children – and even adults – who have special needs.

For Sears’ part, he’s all for it.

“Every child deserves the right to participate in every sports,” Sears said. Presently, the Parks and Rec department is obligated to – and willingly does – accommodate children with special needs and include them in regular programming, but Sears said he can definitely see the value in establishing a separate program for these children. “I feel like every child … deserves that opportunity to play and have fun, whether confined to a wheelchair or whatever the need is.”

Years ago, Adams was involved in a program that would take youth and adults with special needs on trips or plan activities for them. It was this involvement that inspired her to talk to Sears about organizing special programming for children and young adults to plays rec sports.

“If they can’t play T-Ball, we’ll do kickball. If it isn’t a little ball, we’ll do one of those big balls from Walmart. If they’re in a wheelchair, the person can kick the ball and then someone will push them around the bases,” she said. “If they’re on a walker, we’ll just make it a little easier for them to get to the bases.”

For this season, Makynzie’s parents have arranged for their own modifications to let their daughter be involved. Hatton said she checked with Sears to make sure either she or Makynzie’s father could be on the field with her at all times.

“She’s going to have struggles,” Hatton said. “She is mentally and physically disabled, so she doesn’t always understand the things she is supposed to do. She needs help running, sometimes, and just with the whole game – she needs us to be her legs and arms for her most of the time.”

With a program dedicated to children who have special needs, Makynzie’s limitations wouldn’t stand out, and all kinds of modifications could be considered and put in place to make the game accessible, no matter what disability each child faced.

Adams said the specifics can be worked out easily. The important first step is reaching out to parents of children with special needs to assure them of a safe, fun experience for their children and encourage them to involve their children and support this kind of programming. “They need this as much as the kids do,” Adams added. “Daddy wants his little boy to play baseball or play in the NFL, or Mama wants her daughter to be a ballerina or whatever – and sometimes that doesn’t happen.” Seeing their child involved in youth sports can bring a sense of normalcy for a family that routinely has to deal with all kinds of limitations on what their child can do.

Hatton said as a mother of a child with special needs, she can really see the value of a program that would be targeted to children with unique challenges and limitations.

“I think it would be great. Something like that is definitely needed,” Hatton said. “A lot of times, it’s hard for special-needs children to play and interact … It’s important for them to interact with other people with special needs.”

Sears said in order to establish a truly standalone program, registration would need to fall around 20 children, in order to field two teams that could play against each other in a variety of sports. If possible, the department could even offer multiple teams for 6U, 8U, 10U, 12U and so on, mirroring regular programming – if enough children sign up to participate. Another possibility would be to implement a “buddy system,” in which each participant is paired with a buddy who can help them hit the ball, run the bases or whatever other action is part of the sport.

To express interest in such a program or find out more information, call Parks and Rec and speak with Sears, 256-332-8770.

“Every child deserves the opportunity to be able to do what makes them happy …regardless of their ability,” Hatton said.