Recreational, fitness opportunities abound for people with special needs

Doug Gulasy
| Wednesday, June 6, 2012, 11:31 a.m.

Before their dragon boat took off from the dock at the Three Rivers Rowing Association's Millvale Boat House, Gabriel Thompson warned his fellow paddlers to watch out for sea serpents.

They didn't find any of those on the Allegheny River, but that just made their trip even more enjoyable.

"I've seen that in movies and television -- sea serpents, giant ones," said Thompson, 20, of Rostraver, who has autism. "(I was glad they weren't there) because they could have drowned our boat."

Many recreational and fitness opportunities exist for people with special needs in Western Pennsylvania, and most operate with the same or a similar mindset -- that participation in the activities allows children and adults with disabilities to be like anybody else their age.

Thompson and his mother, Debbie, were among the 80 participants at Sunday's Learn to Row and Paddle Open House in Millvale.

The Three Rivers Rowing Association and ABOARD's Autism Connection of PA partnered on the event, which allowed children and adults with autism and their families to practice their rowing/paddling technique on machines and in water tanks before embarking in the dragon boat.

Afterward, the association registered people for its adaptive rowing and paddling teams, which are geared toward people with special needs.

"One of our mobility-impaired athletes was saying it's just freedom on the river," said Joy Nix, director of outreach for the rowing association. "They get to leave their prosthetic, wheelchair, canes or crutches on the dock and go on the river.

"And many times, people wouldn't know that they had a disability."

The Miracle League, which came to Western Pennsylvania three years ago, allows children with special needs to play what local founder Mike Sherry calls "America's Game."

Sherry, whose daughter has autism, brought the national organization here after a parent in his son's baseball league requested that her son be allowed to hit off a tee because he had special needs.

The number of players in the Miracle League of Southwestern PA, which holds its games at Pirates Charities Miracle League Field in Cranberry, has more than doubled since its inception, from 110 to 255.

"It has grown because we're such a great community," Sherry said. "Define community any way you want, but it's a community that really supports our league. It takes well over 500 volunteers to come out every week and help these kids play our game."

Former major league first baseman Sean Casey and his wife, Mandi, spearheaded an effort to bring a second Miracle League field to the Pittsburgh area. The field, at the Upper St. Clair Community & Recreation Center in Boyce Mayview Park, opened on May 26.

"(Opening Day) was overwhelming," she said. "I had tears in my eyes probably no less than 10 times during the day and my mouth hurt from smiling so much. Sometimes, I had to walk away and just take a deep breath."

Two more fields are due -- one in Murrysville and another in Wheeling. Each field is made of a specialized rubber surface that's wheelchair-accessible, so the price tag can be hefty. Casey raised more than $1 million for the South Hills field. The Pittsburgh Pirates have donated $575,000 to fields in the region, and one in Florida.

"We could not have accomplished our mission without the blessing of Pirates Charities and certainly its leadership of (Pirates chairman) Bob Nutting and (Pirates Charities executive director Patricia) Paytas," Sherry said.

While inclusion is one benefit of recreation for people with special needs, children and adults can get more-tangible benefits, supporters say.

The Arc of Greater Pittsburgh at ACHIEVA organizes day camps in Beaver County for children with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Arc President Nancy Murray says the children benefit from the socialization the camps offer.

"It's a way for them to meet people outside of their families, outside of their work," Murray said. "It's also good for instilling appropriate behaviors in people, and it's also good for making sure they're keeping up with their communication skills."

The Pittsburgh chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Service Society offers in-home fitness programs, distinctive of physical therapy, that help patients maintain the mobility they already have.

"The American Journal of Medicine has indicated that people with MS benefit from exercise because it strengthens your muscles and makes you feel better overall," said society Executive Director Susan Mavish. "They can move just a little bit easier because they maintain that muscle strength that they do have."

No matter what they do, Murray urges adults and children with special needs to try some kind of fitness or recreational activity.

"Whether you're a child with Down syndrome or autism or cerebral palsy, you're a child first -- and children like to have fun."

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