*This story first appeared in The Budget’s Feb. 21, 2018 Local Edition
By Stacey Carmany
Prior to becoming involved in adaptive sports, Elijah Yoder of Apple Creek often kept to himself at school. The only kid in his class in a wheelchair, he sometimes felt isolated and misunderstood.
All that changed during a visit to his local library when he learned about a local nonprofit that provided opportunities for individuals with physical disabilities to engage in competitive and recreational sports. “We meet a lot of athletes through word of mouth,” explained Lisa Followay, founder and executive director of Adaptive Sports Program of Ohio. “Somebody that was involved in our program formerly met him at the Orrville Library and got him to start coming out.”
That was eight years ago, and Yoder has been actively involved in the program ever since.
Established in 2009 to promote the health and wellness of youth and adults with physical disabilities, Adaptive Sports Program of Ohio has quickly grown into the largest organization offering adaptive sports opportunities in Ohio, serving a geographic region that includes Wayne, Summit, Stark, Mahoning, Lucas and Franklin counties.
The organization is headquartered in Dalton at the former Orrville-Dalton YMCA and also has active programs in the Wooster/Canton area and in Cleve-
land, Akron, Toledo, Youngstown and Columbus. It offers 10 different sports paths, including power wheelchair soccer and track, sled hockey, wheelchair basketball, strength and conditioning, softball, wheelchair rugby, and kayaking. The organization also supplies equipment to those who wish to participate.
Now a freshman at Waynedale High School in the Southeast Local School District, Yoder currently spends his Monday evenings on the basketball court at the organization’s Dalton training facility, where drop-in wheelchair basketball is made available to individuals of all ages from September through March.
Wheelchair soccer is also offered at the facility on Monday evenings, giving athletes an opportunity to play for recreation or train for competition. The organization currently has the only competitive power wheelchair soccer team in the state, Team Force, which practices in Medina. A second team is also being developed in the Youngstown area.
In addition to basketball, Yoder also participates in the organization’s adaptive hockey program and is a member of Wooster’s Junior Wildcats sled hockey team. Last year, he had an opportunity to compete as an 8th-grader alongside his school’s track team at the state championships and took home a gold medal in the 100-meter wheelchair race.
Followay explained that in 2013, the Ohio High School Athletic Association changed its rules to allow wheelchair athletes to join their high school track teams and participate in events at the State High School meet. ASPO was among the organizations that had advocated for the change.
“Now, across the state, we have kids that are joining their school track team and competing at the state level in the 100, 400, 800 and shotput, and we’re a resource for that,” Followay shared. “Since 2013, there’s been more than 40 kids who have represented their school, and almost all of those have come through our doors at one point to get a racing chair so we could get them started. We’re really, really excited about that.”
Last year, the Association also opened up its Seventh and Eighth Grade State Track and Field Championships to wheelchair athletes. “One thing I’m very, very, very passionate about is seeing all people with disabilities have an opportunity but specifically seeing students with disabilities compete in interscholastic sports,” shared Followay, whose son, Casey, was the first wheelchair athlete in Ohio to be on a school track team. “We paved the way for inclusion for other kids in Ohio.”
In 2015, the organization helped to open up another athletic opportunity for students with disabilities with the creation of the state’s first interscholastic wheelchair basketball team in the Wooster City School District, the Wooster Generals. The program has since been expanded into four other districts, Massillon, Tallmadge, Austintown and Plain Local.
“We know the whole reason sports are offered is because it benefits kids academically. We have kids who are struggling academically because of their disability, struggling to fit in, struggling to feel good about themselves, struggling just to understand their homework and to concentrate on it, and we involve them in sports and then suddenly we see so many improvements, physically, socially,” Followay shared. “They feel better about themselves emotionally and also academically.”
For Yoder, being involved in adaptive sports has opened up a world of possibilities including the prospect of continuing his athletic pursuits at the collegiate level. It has also given him a huge boost of confidence in himself and his abilities. “He’s definitely not shy anymore,” Followay joked.
Yoder noted that he has also seen marked improvements in his health as a result of the strength and fitness training sessions offered by the organization. “I would say that playing these sports put a massive leg up on my health because they offer fitness,” he said. “They get the right workout equipment for us.”
To fund its programs, ASPO relies heavily on the generosity of the community through donations, sponsorships, fundraisers and event admission. “We charge a very small percentage for a registration fee, but
it doesn’t even begin to cover the cost of our program because we want to make it affordable for them to participate,” Followay explained.
She noted that it costs the organization approximately $1,100 to outfit one sled hockey player and upwards of $3,000 to provide equipment for one track athlete. For more information, visit adaptivesportsohio.org, call 330-985-0085 or email Info@AdaptiveSportsOhio.org. For updates and information about upcoming events, like and follow @AdaptiveSportsOhio on Facebook.