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Kiwanis donation solidifies wheelchair sports

Special Photo
The Henry Hurricanes wheelchair sports program was formed in 2008. It offers basketball, handball and football for disabled athletes.

Special Photo The Henry Hurricanes wheelchair sports program was formed in 2008. It offers basketball, handball and football for disabled athletes.

By Jason A. Smith

jsmith@henryherald.com

Wheelchair-bound athletes in Henry County are able to continue feeding their competitive spirit, thanks to a donation from a local organization.

The Kiwanis Club of Henry County, recently gave a $1,500 check to the Henry County Wheelchair Sports program. The check-passing ceremony took place recently at the J.P. Moseley Recreation Center in Stockbridge.

Hampton City Manager Andy Pippin is the president of the Kiwanis Club. He said the club recently learned about financial concerns for local wheelchair sports, from Harlon Matthews, Wheelchair Sports Coordinator for Henry County Parks & Recreation.

"He shared with us that, due to budgetary cuts, one of their three annual sports -- football -- was going to have to be eliminated," said Pippin. "I promised Harlon ..., we weren't going to let that happen. That sport is the only sport that the motorized wheelchair kids can participate in, because you don't have to have use of your arms."

The Parks & Recreation Department launched wheelchair sports in 2006, and partnered with Henry County Schools in 2008, for the creation of teams known as the Henry Hurricanes, according to Matthews. The endeavor offers handball, basketball and football for 9-12 participants per sport, he said.

"The student athletes that participate, display increased social skills, self-esteem, confidence, [and] improved health, and show improvement at school," said Matthews.

The coordinator said the wheelchair-sports program, which is state-funded, has faced challenges over the past two years, due to budget cuts by the Georgia Board of Education.

"Henry County Schools had to reduce budgets across the board, which included the Henry Hurricanes budget," Matthews explained. "So, our team has reached out to the community, to supplement the required funds to keep the program active, and Kiwanis very graciously made a commitment to support the team."

Young people in the program, Matthews continued, have responded positively to local wheelchair activities.

"They are thrilled to experience what it means to be part of a team, to have a purpose," said the Wheelchair Sports coordinator. "They love to experience what it truly means to be a competitor. They are absolutely grateful, that they no longer have to be the ones sitting on the sidelines watching others play, because they are now athletes, too."

Pippin added that youth who take part in wheelchair sports locally, earn varsity letters from the Henry County Schools system. Club members, he said, were dedicated to ensuring the program could continue.

"It was just heartbreaking to know that, due to a very small amount of money, kids were going to have to sit on the sideline again, like they've done all their life," Pippin continued. "We got together the following week ..., and I asked the board to [increase] our annual $500 donation to Henry County Wheelchair Sports, to $500 per sport, meaning we took them to $1,500 a year. By upping our gift, it ensured that they would be able to play that sport this year."

Pippin said his club will maintain its financial support for the program going forward.

"We can only do so much, and they really need somebody to step up and, on an annual basis, give them what they need to run these sports," the club president said. "For this year, they're good, but it'll be a battle again next year for them. As long as they play all three sports, we'll give them $1,500 a year."

The Kiwanis funds will be used to cover referee fees, which range from $400 to $500 per season, and will offset a portion of the program's overall budget of $7,000 per sport, Matthews added. He expressed his appreciation for the Kiwanis Club's efforts, in supporting the Henry Hurricanes.

"We would like to say 'thank you' to Kiwanis, and to any additional sponsors who would like to partner with our team, to keep these kids off the sidelines, and on the court," he said.