Children's Hospital keeps patients' spirits up with sports program

The Fresno BeeMarch 3, 2014 

Thunderous applause bounces off the walls of the North Fresno Church Gym after Josh McCreary sends a basketball into the air. His shot doesn't win a big game. In fact, the ball barely gets above five feet.

The applause is not for the result. It's for the effort the 7-year-old cager's making during the weekly wheelchair basketball practice that's part of a growing list of athletic activities offered through Children's Hospital Central California's Adaptive Sports Program.

The way the sport is measured isn't about winning and losing. It's about how athletics is being used as part of the overall wellness efforts by Children's Hospital.

Dr. Jennifer Crocker, medical director of the hospital's Rehabilitation Center, explains that the sports programs are designed to help promote the physical and mental growth of participants, dismiss the misconception that people with health issues can't be as competitive as anyone and to help patients develop social skills.

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"Being part of this program puts them on the steepest learning curve there is and they progress quickly," Crocker says. " At the same time, it helps their family and friends understand their capabilities. You can read all about how to interact with your peers, but you don't fully understand it until you aren't playing and competing."

The sports program — designed for individuals with physical and health impairments and conditions ranging from cerebral palsy to spinal cord injuries — includes water and snow skiing, rock climbing, kayaking, basketball, tennis and power soccer. There are so many programs, it keeps Crocker and her staff constantly busy.

So far, there has been no sport they could not tackle because of the physical limitations of the patients. The only thing that's held them back from incorporating something, such as white water rafting, is the large expense. That hurdle will also be toppled. But for now, the hospital staff concentrates on the activities that are in place.

After a long day of work with patients at the hospital, physical therapist Randy Mack — who's also director of athlete and team development for Children's Hospital — is on the basketball court helping with the practice. Many of the players have been in and out of Children's Hospital most of their lives. A few of those on the court don't need to use a wheelchair, but they have volunteered to help with the practice.

Josh, who has a neurological disorder, generally uses a walker to get around but he eventually will have to switch to a wheelchair. The basketball practice is giving him a chance to get accustomed to a wheelchair while also building physical and mental strength.

"Being a part of this is huge for him. He's one of those go-getters who wants to do things and doesn't see that there are boundaries. He believes that he can do anything that his older brother — who is not in a wheelchair — can do," says Josh's father, Brian McCreary. "For us, getting to do these kind of sports is as important to his quality of life as anything else.

"Finding outlets where he can have fun is a great thing."

The Adaptive Sports Program is divided into team sports — designed to develop skills to compete — and participation sports that are open to anyone. One of the most popular participation sports is water skiing. It can attract between 35 and 50 participants and their families.

"The participation sports is more of a casual, relaxed atmosphere. It's just for that one day that's more of an enjoyable participation," Mack says. "Basketball is the kind of sport where they are trying to get to a level where they can compete, so they are doing weekly practices."

Whether young participants go on to battle other teams or just enjoy a warm afternoon being towed around the lake, the program is designed to promote physical and mental therapy. For some, it's a chance to work muscles that have gone soft after a long hospital stay. For others, the competition sports are a way to return to the athletic battlefields they knew before an injury sidelined them. And, there are a few who are finally getting the opportunity to compete with those on an equal level.

Mack points to 14-year-old Seth Faulconer — who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was 7 months old and has been a Children's Hospital patient ever since, including two recent surgeries — as an example of how the athletic programs help a patient. When Seth first started attending the wheelchair basketball practices, he had trouble catching the ball. Now, he catches, passes and shoots with the passion and energy of the rest of the team.

His father, Mark Faulconer, shouts words of encouragement to Seth and the rest of the players. Along with basketball, Seth has participated in a variety of other activities, including skiing and rock climbing.

"I believe these activities have had a really good effect on Seth because a lot of these kids can't participate in sports," Faulconer says. "A lot of them don't even watch sports because, why would you want to watch when you can't go out an emulate them? This gives them a chance to participate in a team sport when otherwise they might not ever get to participate in a team sport."

Faulconer — who is on the Adaptive Sports Committee — sees the benefits of the program. All of the participants have gone through, and would have continued to go through, traditional physical therapy. The difference with the sporting outlets is that the youngsters can set a goal for themselves to accomplish an athletic task from a better on-court shot to climbing.

A few days after the basketball practice, the Faulconers were at China Peak for a test run with five participants on how snow skiing will work.

There are few athletes on the court who drive themselves harder than Liam Niewohner, 14, who participates in almost all of the programs offered through Adaptive Sports. Liam was born three months premature and was diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy. On top of that he was recently diagnosed with juvenile arthritis.

His mother, Fresno's Stephanie Niewohner, says the best way to get her son to try something is to say he can't do it. That's why he's so active in the sports program.

The physical therapy has been so positive, Liam wants to raise enough money to build a mobility course at Children's Hospital.

"The course would show the patients, while they are going through physical rehab, how to maneuver through obstacles, bridges, gravel, sand, those kind of surfaces. He has to raise $35,000 to do it, but already he has an architect, civil engineer and civil contractor who were all so impressed with him that they have donated their time," Niewohner says.

Crocker helped with Liam's design because she sees the obstacle course as a perfect transition from the kind of physical therapy done in the hospital to the Adaptive Sports Programs.

Money is always an issue. Crocker and her team handle the bulk of the sports activities but the program works because of the large number of volunteers from hospital staff and families. The program's annual fundraiser — An Evening of Possibility — will be April 25. Those who would like information on the event, or who want to help with one of the activities, should call (559) 353-6130.

The Adaptive Sports Program was launched only a half dozen years ago. Despite the long hours, Mack says he feels like he's a winner because of the program.

"I feel blessed to have this job. We had one kid in a chair who came to water ski. After skiing, he says 'For once all of my cousins and siblings are watching me participate in something and desiring what I'm having. It's usually just the exact opposite where I'm watching them do something where I can't participate,' " Mack says. "Our whole goal is if a child says they want to participate in some sport, we will try to figure out how to make that happen."

TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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