COVID-19 changed the entire education format this spring, and basically took out in-person socializing that students usually get when they attend school.
The National Ability Center decided to fill the void with a new program called Fun + Fitness, which gives students of all abilities a chance to socialize with peers and engage in outdoor, physical activities outside the home, said Andrea Stack, the NAC’s camp, community and education manager.
“Fun + Fitness is a combination of many activities, which focuses on the social things,” Stack said. “We wanted to focus on team sports — volleyball, badminton, kickball and things of that nature. In addition to learning how sports are played traditionally, we also include an ability awareness component in each session.”
The first session started on Sept. 14, and will run through Oct. 14, and registration is open for the next session that will run from Oct. 26 through December, Stack said.
“The kids join us one to two days a week, and it’s been really great,” she said.
To keep within COVID-19 social-distancing guidelines, each group is regulated to five students per session, with two staff members who will facilitate the activities, according to Stack.
“There is still mask wearing, and we have a preference for going outdoors whenever we can,” she said. “If we have to hold sessions indoors, we are lucky to have large facilities that allow for air flow.”
The staff also takes time to clean and sanitize the equipment and playing surfaces between each session, Stack said.
“We feel we can do everything safely for individuals who want to get active,” she said.
One of those individuals is 15-year-old Ping Ping Cortez, who is diagnosed with spina bifida.
Cortez’s parents Kathy and Jerry signed her up for Fun + Fitness, where she has developed a love for badminton, according to Kathy.
“She’s never played badminton before,” Kathy said. “They started off with balloons to get the kids used to the racquets, and they just moved up to birdies.”
In addition to learning how to play badminton and other team sports, Cortez has developed other life tools.
“I’ve developed my teamwork and listening skills,” she said.
In addition, Cortez has participated in mountain biking and rock-wall climbing.
“Rock-wall climbing is challenging for her because she can’t use her legs, but it’s also her second-favorite activity after skiing,” Kathy said. “I asked her why and she said, ‘I never thought I could use my own body without a wheelchair or crutches, and with climbing I can go this director or that direction with the power of my own body.’”
The Cortezes discovered the National Ability Center two years ago, just before they adopted Ping Ping from China, according to Kathy.
“I met one of their volunteers backstage at a Steve Miller Band concert,” Kathy said. “Her granddaughter also has spina bifida, and she told us about the National Ability Center.”
The Cortezes decided to sign Ping Ping up for a National Ability Center camp after she came home from another camp that wasn’t too accessible.
“Ping Ping asked if she could go to a wheelchair camp next, because she can walk a little with crutches, but after 50 feet she gets pretty tired,” Kathy said. “That was when I remembered that National Ability Center.”
Last year, Ping Ping participated in horseback riding and skiing.
“She was such a natural at skiing that they told us if she could check off a list of skills, she would be eligible to join the Paralympic Team,” Kathy said. “Unfortunately, she didn’t get to the last checks because COVID-19 ended the ski season early.”
Stack said it was important for the National Ability Center to come up with Fun + Fitness during the pandemic to not only provide physical benefits, but also mental-health benefits.
“There’s a peace through connection and I think now, more than ever, people need that, especially in a world where isolation would be so easy to slip into with the circumstances,” she said.
Kathy gets emotional when she talks about Fun + Fitness’s benefit for Ping Ping.
“The first day I picked her from a session, I came up to the door and heard the kids screaming with laughter,” she said. “Ping Ping is an only child, so she hasn’t had anyone to play with during the COVID shutdown. And now she’s finally playing.”