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Officials seek support for wheelchair sports

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

Officials with the Henry County Parks and Recreation Department are attempting to raise funds to ensure sports programs remain intact for the area's wheelchair-bound youths.

Budget cuts and harsh economic times have taken their toll on wheelchair sports, according to Harlon Matthews, therapeutic recreation specialist with the Henry County Parks and Recreation Department.

"We are looking for $6,000 to fund the program's wheelchair football," said Matthews, who coaches in Henry County's interscholastic wheelchair sports program. He said the program is sanctioned through the Georgia-based American Association of Adapted Sports Programs, Inc., (AAASP), which is the Georgia High School Association's governing body for wheelchair sports throughout the state.

The wheelchair sports coach said Henry County Parks and Recreation Department's Therapeutic Division has partnered with the Henry County School System since 2008 to provide sporting activities for students throughout the county.

Matthews said the program's 11 wheelchair-bound students have been involved in three different AAASP sports, including wheelchair football, wheelchair basketball, and wheelchair handball. The team of student-athletes, known as the Henry Hurricanes, already has two state titles to their credit -- 2008 and 2009 state junior varsity championships in wheelchair basketball.

Matthews said funding has been cut so deeply that the wheelchair sports program may have to eliminate one of its three major sports this year.

"The school system provides transportation, pays for referees and league fees for each sport," he said. "The parks and recreation department facilitates practices. However, due to budget cuts, funding is only available for two of the three wheelchair sports that the school system and parks and recreation department participate in."

Matthews said the program is lacking funding to help pay expenses related to travel, the most expensive line item for program participants. He recalled that the news that funding would be cut prompted one of the student-athletes to ask, "Do they [program organizers] not know how important this is to us?"

He added, "I do not want to have to be asked that question again."

Matthews said he hopes to take the program's fund-raising into various schools around the county, in the form of charity wheelchair basketball games, which incorporate teachers and students, as well as participants in the wheelchair sports program.

"It will accomplish three things," he said. "One, it will give exposure to students without disabilities. Two, is mainstreaming students with disabilities into their schools. And thirdly, raises funds for the sports we want to play."

To learn more about the program's fund-raising efforts, contact Matthews at (770) 288-7293.