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An option for special needs kids to be kids

Adaptive sports program debuts in Tiffin
Jordyn, a student volunteer, engages with a special needs child in a rhythm exercise on Thursday, Sept. 27, as part of the inaugural session for Courage League Sports, an adaptive sports and recreation program at Tiffin Elementary. University of Iowa therapeutic recreation students, under guidance from their instructor, work one-on-one with special needs kids with cognitive, emotional or physical challenges. (photo by Chris Umscheid)

TIFFIN– Kids just want to play. Sometimes though, challenges get in the way of having fun. An innovative new program in Tiffin is working to overcome those challenges under the motto “EveryBODY Deserves to Play.”
Courage League Sports is a provider of recreation and sports for kids with disabilities including cognitive, physical, emotional or any combination thereof.
“This gives them a place to play, move their bodies, to be social, interact, and have fun,” said Jenny Rempt, owner of the new Iowa City-area venture.
Her 10-year-old son Sam is a special needs kid, and a search for adaptive sports opportunities led Rempt to Melissa Clarke-Wharff, who founded Courage League Sports, in Urbandale, five years ago.
Clarke-Wharff found herself in a similar situation as Rempt, after her son had six strokes at the age of 8.
“It changed his life and our life as a family,” she said. “We just wanted a place for him to go play, and while he was doing all his therapies a (large) number of kids kept coming in for all their different therapies.”
Clarke-Wharff did some research and made a staggering discovery.
“Just in the greater Des Moines area, there’s over 22,000 kids and 25,000 adults affected.”
Over 20 percent of the national population is affected, to some degree with impairments, she added.
“It’s the largest minority group that we have in our country,” Clarke-Wharff pointed out. “People don’t realize that, and it’s a minority group anybody can join at anytime.”
Clarke-Wharff said they see 1,000 kids and 800 adults monthly in the Des Moines area.
The concept is simple, she explained.
“We give them their own space to play and do adaptations that will work with what their bodies can do. Really it’s just letting them be themselves and figure out what their bodies can do. We have found through the progression of that, it has made them not only physically stronger, or enhancing what they’re doing through their therapies, but there’s also a social impact of them being able to go out and be active.”
For example, Courage kids are able to play soccer, in their own unique way, just like their siblings or friends do.
“Everybody needs to move, everybody needs to have a social outlet, and they just have that space here to do that now,” said Clarke-Wharff. “That’s what’s really important to us.”
WHO radio (Des Moines) reported on Thursday, Oct. 4, Clarke-Wharff was awarded ESPN’s Toyota Woman Everyday Hero award for her efforts. The award comes with a $10,000 grant to support Courage League Sports, WHO said.
Rempt and Clarke-Wharff kept in touch through the years and Rempt toured the Urbandale facility.
“It was a dream of ours for Sam,” she said. “And knowing if we could help get it here for all the other kiddos like Sam, to play.”
Clarke-Wharff recently opened a facility in Ankeny and started a franchise-licensing program.
“We are the first to come in under their (new) licensing program,” Rempt said. “The first to start one here in Eastern Iowa.”
Courage League Sports is currently utilizing the gym at the Clear Creek Amana (CCA) Community School District’s Tiffin Elementary, where Sam is a student and Jenny has been active in the Parent-Teacher Group.
“I approached them and asked if I could be someone who rents out the space (CCA rents out their facilities on a routine basis), and CCA graciously helped me out with that.”
The district also has allowed her to utilize its equipment.
“As a start-up, I didn’t have to go out and spend thousands of dollars on the typical PE (physical education) and recreation equipment they have, and that they have graciously allowed me to use. (It has been) A huge start from them,” she added.
The program is typically for kids from age 5 through 15 in the first session. A 3-year-old was in attendance on the opening night, Thursday, Sept. 27, with the oldest a 12-year-old. The program in Urbandale serves a wider range.
“From 2 to 82,” Rempt said. “The hope is to grow this (Tiffin) into that.”
Students from the University of Iowa’s therapeutic recreation program, including occupational therapy and physical therapy majors, assist with the program under the guidance of their instructor.
“This is what they’ve been reading about and learning about; and already have quite a bit of experience, but here’s another level of experience for them playing with the kids,” Rempt said.
Volunteers from the community also assist during the sessions and parents are able to join in, or sit back and relax for an hour.
Rempt, a former elementary school teacher, saw first-hand through her son, the need for such a program.
“There’s 18,000 kids, 12,000 adults (with special needs) within 50 miles of Iowa City,” she said. “It’s a thing you don’t know about until you get thrown into that world. As a mother, there’s not a ton of options for your kid to be a kid, and move in a way that’s meaningful and safe for them.”
Courage League is such a place, she said.
“I’m a mom who loves, so that’s why I’m bringing this here,” Rempt said. “I’m thankful for the opportunity to be the lady saying let’s do this, right now.”
The second session for Courage League Sports, out of five total for the school year, starts Tuesday, Nov. 6, and runs for four weeks, on Tuesday evenings, from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., in the gym at Tiffin Elementary, 104 N. Park Rd. in Tiffin. Phone 319-621-8645, or email courageleagesportsIC@gmail.com, for more information or visit www.courageleaguesports.com/our-locations/iowa-city/ to register, donate or find out how to volunteer.