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Special needs kids enjoy football camp fun

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Yells and screams rang out as the fumbled football rolled around in the end zone.

Isaiah Gwin, an 11-year-old Indianapolis boy, looked up from the tackling dummy he had clobbered and looked for the ball. All around him, Center Grove High School football players encouraged him, shouting for him to grab the ball and spike it.

With a wide smile, Isiah pounced on the ball, tumbled on the field and drove it toward the ground.

The experience was likely a new one for Gwin. He was one of 16 special needs children being football stars for the day through a special program offered by the Center Grove football team. Partnering with the Easter Seals Crossroads, the school set up its own football camp Wednesday for the children.

They ran drills through cones and pylons, caught passes from the players and rushed out onto the field like it was a Friday night. They walked through the locker room, decorated with their names and experienced what Trojan players go through before a game.

“We wanted to make them feel like we do,” said Lane Morris, a senior running back for the team.

The football program was part of CampAbility, an annual summer camp for special needs children ages 5 to 11 put on by Easter Seals Crossroads in Indianapolis.

“Really, CampAbility is designed to provide kids with special needs or disabilities a traditional day-camp experience. While some of them might not participate in other community camps, this provides those activities with more one-on-one attention,” said Joelle Samples, the manager of respite services for Easter Seals Crossroads and organizer of CampAbility.

In one drill Wednesday, the kids would weave between cones set up to practice agility. Another had them throwing balls at a net with targets on it.

Holding soft padded tackling dummies, the players encouraged campers to come up and try to push them backward. The children were much smaller than the typical opponents they would face on the field, but the athletes played along, falling backward and giving the kids high-fives.

At the touchdown station — one of the most popular drills — kids would pretend to take a handoff, move through blockers and score a touchdown. Then they got to celebrate with a dance or a cheer.

Ryan Shaffer ran around a tackling dummy, pushing it and slapping hands with the players he passed by. Shaffer, 8, is mildly autistic and had never shown an interest in sports even though his mother had tried to get him involved.

“But he seems to be really enjoying this. This will help,” said Heather Boylan, Ryan’s mom. “I wasn’t sure going in, but he’s really into it. He’s starting to warm up to it, go to it and let mom sit back and watch.”

The football camp was the idea of the players and coaches.

A group of Center Grove players were looking for ways to reach out to the community, and they approached their coach, Eric Moore. The coach thought it would be a great idea, and the team went to work planning the camp.

“I have five healthy kids, so for me, it’s a chance to give back to some kids who aren’t healthy. I think that’s what it is for them, too. They can use a skill that they have to help kids who might not otherwise be able to do that,” Moore said.

Once the team had the idea to host a camp for disabled children, Lori Bolin of the Center Grove Football Gridiron Club worked with Center Grove’s special education program to get connected to an organization that they could partner with.

She was led to Samples.

“Just in talking with Lori, I could get a great sense of the character of these guys and how excited they were in doing that. I thought it would be a great experience for the kids to come and play with them,” Samples said.

Center Grove players and coaches put together an abbreviated camp.

“We took the things that we usually do and based it off that. We adjusted it for the kids,” said senior Dillon Dallas, a defensive lineman for the team.

In order to make the camp happen, all of the players and coaches had to be trained to work with children with disabilities. They went through each drill and activity that was planned with Easter Seals employees to learn how to run each one for the kids who were taking part.

The three-hour session gave the players an idea of what the children have been experiencing.

Some of the campers used wheelchairs; others were not able to run. So the players pushed them, carried them and did whatever it took to ensure they had a genuine experience.

“If they can’t do it, do it for them. Let them get the enjoyment out of it,” Moore said. “Lots of smiles, lots of happiness.”

But while the on-field activities were the focus of the camp, organizers made sure the entire experience helped the kids feel like they were football players for the day.

They were led into the Trojans’ locker room, where some lockers had been cleared out for the kids. Each locker had a banner with their names on it, decorated with red and white crepe paper.

As kids entered the locker room, they got to bang the Links of Success, a heavy stainless steel chain link the team uses as a motivational tool.

Coaches set up the inflatable football helmet leading to the field that is used in games, and every child was able to emerge from the facemask onto the turf of the football field. One of the coaches announced each of the kids’ names as they came out, while fans clapped and cheered. It was the closest thing to Friday night under the lights without actually being a Trojan.

Vaughn Kinser, a 6-year-old camper, rushed through with his head down, clutching the hands of the Center Grove players that led him out. He giggled and waved in excitement.

At the close of the camp, all of the campers and players huddled together for a final cheer. Moore invited the campers to come back for a game, and the children left with wide smiles on their faces.

Shaffer ran up to his mother, looking for anyone to give a high-five to. When asked if he wanted to come back and play more football, he nodded vigorously with a smile.

His excitement at getting to run around on the field made his family wish there were more opportunities like that.

“You don’t think of high school kids for the most part wanting to do this kind of thing,” said Nancy Boylan, Ryan’s grandmother. “This was impressive what they did.”

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