Local Organization Helps People With Disabilities Focus On Their Ability

Alexa Halko,14, races in the Ukrop's Monument 10K with the help of Sportable. Photo taken by Ashley Jones

Alexa Halko,14, races in the Ukrop’s Monument 10K with the help of Sportable. Photo taken by Ashley Jones

RICHMOND, Va. – A non-profit organization based out of Richmond, Va., has been providing individuals with physical and visual disabilities the opportunity to think and act past their ailments in order to live a physically active life through sports.

In 2014, Sportable serviced up to 187 athletes by providing sessions in 12 different sports, training, and providing equipment for various events. Many athletes they service range in age and background. Despite all of these circumstances, Sportable chooses to focus on the abilities of their athletes.

Hunter Leemon of Richmond, Va., is the Executive Director of Sportable and is passionate about the work he has done with the group. He says many organizations have a mission to transform lives, but he really believes that they, unlike others, really follow their mission of transformation.

Leemon, who has only been the Executive Director for six months, started working with Sportable as a soccer coach in 2009. While Leemon went on to work with professional soccer teams, he recalls his experience with Sportable left a lasting impression with him.

“When I got involved with the pro team it still felt good and I still liked it and I could see the impact and at the same time I could see the other side of it,” said Leemon. “And then all of a sudden you come here, [Sportable] and the impact the organization has on our athletes is incredible.”

One of the athletes Sportable has serviced is Preston Curry from Midlothian, Va. He served in the Army for two years and eight months before suffering a spinal cord injury from a car accident and becoming medically retired in 1995.

While working as a Research Specialist at VCU Hospital, Curry was introduced to Sportable when he was asked to offer the organization to his patients. He plays sports that include wheelchair lacrosse, tennis, bowling, pool, and softball. He notes that while the wheelchair is his main means of mobility, he still knows he has to use leg braces and forearm crutches to maintain his muscle mass and keep his limbs active.

Curry trains with Sportable to prepare for competition with hand cycling, and he also attends the multiple sports sessions they provide just to stay active. He says Sportable has helped him increase his confidence and change his self-image.

“[Sportable] has helped me, and helped me to get other people to understand that having a disability is not the end of the world, and it’s kind of helped me change perceptions of people with a disability.” Curry said.

William Correll of Richmond, Va., a volunteer basketball coach for Sportable, can relate to how the organization helped him change his own perception of people who are disabled. Through an awareness program hosted by the organization, Correll had the opportunity to play wheelchair basketball, and experience what it is like to compete from a different perspective. Correll was immediately sold and wanted to be a part of Sportable’s mission.

“It’s not something you think about with how difficult it is to get around in the chair,” Correll said. “I think that from a professional standpoint, you need to be more sensitive and I think that with the Sportable athletes, they show that they are real athletes.”

Peter Halko of Williamsburg, Va., is the father of Alexa Halko, a 14-year-old athlete who trained with Sportable for the Monument 10K. After moving from Colorado, Halko wanted to make sure his daughter had an outlet for competition, and he found that in this organization.

“Sportable provides the opportunity for our kids to get them their cardio, get them their activity to play in group sports, that we know is beneficial to anyone growing up,” said Halko. “They need an opportunity to develop athletically.”

With a mindset of coaching serious athletes, Correll is not only developing athletes, but he is challenging his players to push beyond their own expectations both physically and mentally.

“I expect them to hustle, run hard, and hold them to a high standard like my coaches did,” said. “I think it would be fair to cut them any slack and I am sure as athletes they may resent me at times. I think ultimately they will look back like I did and be glad that somebody held them accountable.”

Leemon recalls when he first started coaching his athletes at Sportable.

“I had no idea what I was doing when I showed up at the first practice,” Leemon said. “But these guys, my kids, they played the sport and I didn’t treat them any differently, I treated them like athletes and it was fun.”

One of Leemon’s favorite athletes he coached was Larry, a resident of The Virginia Home. He says Larry was just appreciative of what they were doing.

“Larry used to yell at me ‘Coach I really enjoyed coming,’ and he told me it was one of the most impactful things,” Leemon said. “When I think about why I took the job, I think about Larry. He is probably the guys that had the biggest impact on me and he’s probably the reason why I’m here today.”

Leemon acknowledges that one of Sportable’s goals is to make sure their athletes are a part of an inclusive environment and do not feel isolated in any sporting environment. Halko is also aware of the impact sports has with helping their athletes feel included.

“Our athletes are not the athletes that are out there at recess every day, running around, playing basketball or tag,” Halko said. “Our athletes are the ones sitting on the curbs, they’re sitting on the picnic tables waiting for people to come play with them. Socially, team sports and doing anything athletic with a team and a group of people, we know the social effects of it, we know that that’s good for people.”

Curry thinks that just staying active in the community and having the motivation to get out each day is a big step for people with disabilities.

“I consider myself lucky to be in a city that has Sportable and also VA Hospital. I feel like sports and recreation are our ways out of the house and if we stay in the house we are subjected to of course depression and that’s not a good thing.

Peggy Kofsky, a researcher at the University of Toronto, says people who are physically disabled and confined to a wheelchair because of disease, have poor body images and self esteem and turn to the abuse of alcohol and drugs.

“I would suggest Sportable to not only any veterans that wants to be involved with wheelchair sports,” Curry said. “I would suggest it to any person with a disability because there are so many places out there that are not like Sportable in other cities and locations.”

While Leemon is proud of the work they have done, he acknowledges that this is not enough and they plan to expand and reach 230 athletes this year, and double the amount of athletes in two to three years.

“We know we want to serve more. We’re not complacent with just serving the give or take 200 athletes we have now,” Leemon said.

“Without Sportable there wouldn’t be another resource, and the staff really love the kids, Correll said. “It is a fun culture to be a part of with the athletes and volunteers, and a lot of good times and a lot of awareness and I think that as a culture is very valuable in Richmond.”