By DAVID DUPONT
BG Independent News
The turf room in Field House at Bowling Green State University is full of voices on Sunday afternoon.
Lower voices of parents murmur from the bleachers along the wall near the door. Spread across the green before them are the encouraging, sometimes cheering, voices of college students.
Rising above it all are the high, happy chatter of children at play. All this is punctuated the sounds of balls bouncing and being kicked.
Welcome to a new season of Rally Cap Sports.
The program, now in its fourth year, offers individual sports experiences in a non-competitive environment to children with a range of special needs, said Melissa Wilson, a BGSU senior who directs the program.
Sunday’s kickoff marked the start of the program’s fourth year on campus.
A few dozen kids are spread out around the turf room, each working with two or three college students.
This kickoff, Wilson said, serves as an introduction for new participants, and a welcome back for participants from previous years.
After Sunday there will be a basketball league this fall as well as a couple dances. For information contact: www.rcsbgsu.org.
The program serves children with a wide range of needs, she said. Some are non-verbal, while others have mild learning disabilities. About 70 have participated to date.
For all of them, sports in another setting is not a possibility.
Jodi Clifford said her children are unable to play sports either at school or in private programs because of a variety of disabilities including bilateral coordination issues. “But coming here they enjoy it. They look forward to it. They don’t feel left out. They feel part of the team.”
Cicely Watkins said her sons “tried traditional sports and they were very discouraged. They hated sports.”
One has cerebral palsy and all have sensory processing issues.
Now they will gladly talk about all the sports they play at Rally Cap, and how good they are at them.
Shelley Davis said her daughter who participates has fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, with symptoms similar to autism, and low IQ. Her daughter proudly displays all her Rally Cap trophies.
“They’re discounted at school, but not here,” Davis said.
That the program is run by students makes it all the more appealing the mothers said.
“You can tell the students love it, and it makes my child feel special,” Watkins said.
“They look up to them,” Clifford said. “You always have more than one student who wants to take a child on.”
Wilson said the program recruits any college student interested. Many, she said, are special education majors like her, others major in speech pathology, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. The program also has a lot of athletes volunteer to share their expertise in the particular sports.
“We really take pride in showing college students how to be more inclusive and more accepting of people with disabilities,” Wilson said.
For the 30 or so kids at the kickoff, there were more than twice that number of student volunteers.
Wilson said she’s learned a lot from the families. “It’s made me a lot more humble to understand the things they go through and provide them something to alleviate some stress.”
Rally Cap has deep ties to BGSU. Paul Hooker founded a challenged youth sports program about 20 years. That became Rally Cap Sports. When he decided to expand, he returned to his alma mater and talked to Dean Ray Braun of the College of Business Administration.
Student Luke Sims was recruited as the student director, and Mariana Mitova, a lecturer in fashion merchandising, volunteered to help with the program. Mitova had a particular interest because her son Alex Mitov is blind.
She and Alex have seen the benefits. “It’s changed our lives,” she said. Alex has become an unofficial spokesman for the program.
Having established Rally Cap Sports in Bowling Green, the program expanded this fall to five more campuses – Ohio State University, Ohio University, Akron State, University of Cincinnati and John Carroll University,
Sims, who works in the national office, was a key player in the expansion. This summer Wilson also worked on the expansion as an intern at Rally Cap in New Jersey.
The program eyes further growth, Wilson said. “Our vision is to spread it across the nation.”