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Sports league provides opportunity for kids with special needs

Published: Apr. 19, 2022 at 6:12 PM EDT
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HANOVER, Va. (WWBT) - Sports can play an important part in a child’s development, but finding a league to participate in for kids with special needs can be difficult.

Cool Spring Baptist Church in Hanover County is providing that opportunity. The church has a recreation center attached to the building, complete with a full basketball court.

The facility has been a saving grace for so many families in the area.

The church uses the space to run the Compass Sports Challenger League, a league for children and adults with special needs.

It’s a necessary place of refuge for Jennifer Barnum and her son, Eli, who’s on the autism spectrum.

“What people don’t realize is that kids with special needs don’t get the same opportunities as other typical children do. Our kids love sports. They love to move; they love to be with their peers out there. So, this is so wonderful that it’s a safe environment, and people of all different abilities can come together, have a lot of fun, learn some skills on the court and just develop friendships, and it’s so important for our kids,” Jennifer said.

Dean is Eli’s friend, and they’ve been in the league together for several years.

“One of the loneliest things about being in the special needs community is that you’re isolated in a lot of respects, and this is an opportunity to feel like everything is normal, it’s just another day, this is what other kids do. You’re embracing kids at all levels, making them feel good,” said Connie Deved, Dean’s mom.

None of this would be possible without the leadership of Ashley White, the Director of Challenger Sports.

“It’s just the safe space that we create where they feel free to be themselves and be who they are with no inhibitions, and everybody is here to love them and accept them, and I think everybody just feels that,” says White.

With the help of 150 volunteers and a leadership team with people like Becki Riley, they’re able to provide a basketball, soccer and a cheerleading season.

“It’s just amazing to watch their confidence grow, their progression of skills but to witness the real-life friendships they make,” says White.

“I tell people all the time these kids live life on full tilt, so their enjoyment and their excitement. It’s infectious, it’s contagious,” says Riley.

These are all reasons why Jennifer and Connie wanted to reward Ashley with the NBC12 Acts of Kindness, which comes with $300 and a $50 gift card to Mexico Restaurant.

As if Ashely wasn’t awesome enough, she no longer lives in Hanover County. North Carolina is her home, but she makes the drive every weekend for the games.

“There is nothing that makes me feel like Challenger Sports does on a Friday night. I just don’t get that fulfillment anywhere else, and it would have been impossible to give it up and not continue it. These kids are worth it; they’re worth the 2 1/2 hours drive each way,” says White.

It’s clear, Compass Sports Challenger League is an incredible program, run by incredible people, investing in the lives of some incredible kids.

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