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Everybody Plays!

Courage League brings adaptive sports to Eastern Iowa
Brothers Mason, 11, and Max Sieren, 8, along with 11-year-old Jack Zschiesche and volunteers from Access Systems, launch balls on the parachute at Adaptive Sports Day, put on by Courage League Sports of Urbandale at the North Liberty Recreation Center, Saturday, Oct. 29. (photo by Shianne Fisher)

NORTH LIBERTY– Jolene and Chad Darter traveled nearly four hours to give their daughter one hour of giant bowling, noodle hockey and aerobic drumming– activities that may seem more like fun and games than sports.
But Melissa Clarke-Wharff, founder and executive director of Courage League Sports based in Central Iowa, believes her organization provides just what kids with physical, cognitive or emotional disabilities need.
“It’s more than just sports,” she said.
Courage League also offers music programs, horseback riding and dance parties for members of the facility located in Urbandale, as well as other activities for kids and adults who attend events such as the Adaptive Sports Day held Saturday, Oct. 29, at the North Liberty Recreation Center.
The organization’s motto: Everybody deserves to play.
“We just give them a variety of movement and activities and let them have fun with it,” Clarke-Wharff added.
Around 40 kids attended the two sessions held in North Liberty, during which they tried their hands at parachute ball, soccer skills and more. Courage League staff and volunteers, as well as siblings of participants, joined in on the fun.
“It’s such an amazing opportunity for special needs kids to do what they want to do with their peers,” said Amy Zschiesche, of North Liberty. She didn’t hesitate to sign up her 11-year-old son Jack who suffered a traumatic brain injury five years ago and has since undergone physical therapy.
“I hope it can take off, that the word will get out and more people will be aware,” she said of the program.
The only non-profit of its kind in Iowa and one of the few adaptive sports facilities in the nation, Courage League provides year-round programming for individuals unable to participate in traditional sports and extracurriculars. Staff and volunteers slow down the pace and utilize special equipment so participants can have fun while going at their own speed.
“A lot of our kids and participants have multiple things going on,” said Clarke-Wharff. “It’s already tough living with what they have and to be limited with recreational options is just not fair.”
The Darters, of Dubuque, are always looking for alternative activities for their 9-year-old Alayna, who has spina bifida.
“We’ve been trying to get stuff like this going in Dubuque,” said Jolene. “This gives us ideas for open gyms there.”
Courage League is currently exploring the opening of a facility in Cedar Rapids, but Clarke-Wharff said it depends on funding. For now, the organization rents at the Hawkeye Downs Expo Center and offers programming through Nov. 23 on Monday and Wednesday evenings.
“The number of kids and adults living with special needs in the North Liberty area is pretty high,” Clarke-Wharff noted. She said her research points to upwards of 15,000 kids and 12,000 adults in the Corridor with a physical, cognitive or emotional disability.
According to 2014 numbers by the State Data Center of Iowa, roughly 350,000 people in Iowa are living with some kind of disability. Kids under the age of 18 represent nearly 30,000 of that total.
And Clarke-Wharff wants those individuals, including her own son Jack who suffered several strokes at just 8 years old, to be able to participate in recreational activities that may otherwise appear unavailable to them.
“After his strokes he was left with cognitive delays and lost the use of the right side of his body,” she recalled. “We were trying to figure out a new norm for him. He was very active in sports before this happened.”
In 2013, five years after her son’s incident, Clarke-Wharff was frustrated with the lack of adaptive sport options in their community and launched Courage League, which now serves more than 1,000 children and adults on a monthly basis. Its logo, Rory the Lion, was her son Jack’s invention.
“He just really equated courage with the lion,” she said.
Before programs, like the one held in North Liberty, Clarke-Wharff even asks participants to “roar like Rory” as they get loosened up for play.
Brandy Sieren, of Keota, said she enjoyed watching her kids Mason, 11, and Max, 8, participate in the Courage League activities in North Liberty. Mason, who has Down syndrome, receives adaptive physical education at Mid-Prairie Middle School in Kalona and is enrolled at ChildServe of Iowa City.
“I just wish we could get more stuff closer to us,” she added.