Thompson: For kids with disabilities, a sports world of their own
Written By: Marcus Thompson II, Mercury News
OAKLAND — A smile exploded on the face of Miyante Ringo, like a motion-captured sunrise, as he displayed his hoop skills. The ball spun rapidly on his right index finger, so fast the silver NBA letters disappeared. He seamlessly transferred it to his left finger, just to show off a bit, then slid his left hand underneath the spinning ball so it bounced on the back of his wrist.
Marques Haynes, the late great Globetrotter and ball-handling wizard, would be proud to watch Miyante. Especially since the 15-year-old Oakland kid has cerebral palsy.
His impaired motor functions have taken his legs and impaired his communication. Cerebral palsy, abnormal brain development or damage experienced by 1 in every 323 children in the U.S., has robbed Miyante of a typical childhood.
But CoachArt gives it back. The nonprofit organization, based in Los Angeles with a branch in Oakland, fills an overlooked void in the health care system. CoachArt brings a level of normalcy to the lives of chronically ill children by giving them opportunities to play sports.
But for many of these children, sports is a matter of life.
“Sometimes he gets frustrated,” Miyante’s mother, Oakland native Mia Cox, said. “He would have behavior problems sometimes. He would act out physically because he can’t express himself. Sports gives him a way to get all that frustration out and helps him feels like he belongs. Makes him happy. It helps just to see my child smile.”
CoachArt was one of several Bay Area organizations that benefited from Super Bowl 50 coming to town. The 50 Fund — the legacy fund of the San Francisco Bay Area Super Bowl 50 Host Committee — doled out more than $7.5 million to 140 local organizations to assist more than half a million low-income children, youths and young adults.
Each week leading up to the Super Bowl, for 50 weeks, an organization was given a $10,000 grant as a “playmaker” in the Bay Area community. The StubHub Foundation donated $250,000, which led to 20 more playmaker grants.
CoachArt was No. 23. The money was a boon for an organization, which runs on volunteers and provides its services completely free.
“That’s a significant percentage of our income,” Molly Dirr, program director for CoachArt Bay Area, said. “That grant is going to allow us to do all of our sports programming for the rest of the year.”
And the work is paramount. Studies done by the University of Michigan estimated that up to 18 percent of children in the U.S., about 12 million, live with a chronic illness. Members of low-income communities in California are 30 percent more likely to have a chronic illness.
“When it comes to priorities, acting classes, piano lessons, sports teams, that’s going to be the first thing that goes when money is tight. And I would agree with that. You need food on the table, you need health care, you need clothes, you need to buy school supplies. … But it’s sad for me to think they’re missing out on these experiences that other kids are able to have.”
Crippling medical costs leave many of these families struggling to get proper treatment. Even for those children who manage to get the care they need, their childhoods are often spent in hospitals and in isolation. They don’t get to just play like other kids.
Often, neither do their healthy siblings, forced to tag along to doctor visits and receive the divided attention of a parent overwhelmed by a special needs child. Even those with means have a hard time manufacturing the simple joys for their unique children.
CoachArt’s mission is to change that for as many children as possible by catering to those demographics and providing those experiences.
Cancer. Heart conditions. Physical limitations. It doesn’t matter. With trained volunteers and sheer resolve, CoachArt gives chronically ill students their chance to enjoy sports like the rest of us.
That includes adapting the sport to the child’s needs, providing whatever equipment and mechanics and instruction needed. Seasonal club sports — soccer in the fall and basketball in the winter — allow children to play with fellow chronic sufferers. Private, in-home sessions are also available to CoachArt students.
The result is a community of people with similar plights who bond in their struggle and appreciation of simple pleasures.
“Bringing these kids together for sports,” volunteer coach Joe Clark said, “they start playing, and they forget that they’re sick. They forget they are inhibited in some way.”
Simon Fitch-Jenett, wearing a white CoachArt T-shirt, baggy enough to resemble pajamas, rounded third base and jogged toward home plate. The coach pointed to his destination, and Simon focused his eyes on home plate as he plodded closer. Instead of touching it with his feet, Simon reached down and high-fived the white pentagon covered in dirt. He rose back up with both hands in the air and a proud smile beneath his moppy brown hair.
It would’ve been the most basic of activities for the average child. For Simon, it was an epic feat.
He came to CoachArt at age 6, still hooked to a feeding tube. He was born with dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition where the heart becomes enlarged and can’t efficiently pump blood. Running was nearly impossible, but he loved baseball.
With CoachArt, he got to be on a team for the first time. And in August 2014, he scored his first run.
“You see this big smile on his face, and everybody around him is cheering,” Dirr said. “He goes for a high-five. Any parent would be proud watching their kid come home for the first time. But for Simon’s family, it was even more special because they didn’t even know if he would make it that far or what he would be able to do in life. To see him achieve that small accomplishment was a huge victory.”
Imagine the overwhelming warmth in the soul of Simon’s parents, Laura Fitch and Jaime Jenett.
Imagine how much fun Ella Wade, 9, found in soccer and rock climbing after enduring chemotherapy to treat acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Imagine the peace Cameca Cotton feels having daughter Cailah, 9, take a martial arts class specifically for kids with cerebral palsy. Cotton can just relax, since there are no stares and whispers among parents who understand her circumstance.
Imagine this scene from Superhero Kickball. Children of varying disabilities getting to play the classic schoolyard game. And everybody — including parents, siblings and CoachArt volunteers — dressed up in costumes.
“That was a pretty incredible moment,” said Christina Anthony, who recruits and trains CoachArt volunteers, and who wore an Iron Man costume. “Seeing a variety of ages and abilities, and kids running around and scoring home runs with a superhero cape flying in the wind, and them being so happy, that was awesome.”
Miyante was one of the happiest ones that day. When he arrived at CoachArt, he was shy and uncooperative. His guard was firmly in place.
But on this day, July 25, he embraced the experience fully. With help, he lifted himself out of his wheelchair and, for the first time in his life, kicked the ball. He then got back in his chair and was pushed around the bases, his cape flapping in the wind.
It was the biggest smile they had seen from Miyante, which was a victory all its own. And cerebral palsy took the defeat.
Read Marcus’s original article by CLICKING HERE.