Nicole Abernathy is Enjoying AJAA Executive Director Role
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Photography Provided by Raindancer Studios
Nicole Abernathy lived out many a Hoosier girl’s dream when she became a college cheerleader for Indiana University. Halfway through her collegiate career, however, she fell ill with chronic pancreatitis, a condition that typically plagues older individuals who suffer from alcoholism. As an otherwise healthy college sophomore, doctors were perplexed.
“They didn’t know what to do with me,” Abernathy says. “It got to the point where I was told, ‘We don’t know when this next attack is going to kill you.’”
One conclusion all experts agreed on was that she would be unable to bear children.
“That was hard news to swallow,” Abernathy says.
In 2008 she was presented with a glimmer of hope when her gastroenterologist told her about a promising surgeon in Minnesota who had helped a number of young girls who suffered from the same condition. He removed her pancreas and spleen, but warned her prior to the surgery that doing so would cause her to become diabetic.
Something else happened that year that nobody saw coming. Abernathy got pregnant and gave birth to her son Jackson in 2009, making her one of two women in the world who has had a child with this illness.
For 18 years Abernathy worked for an aerospace engineering firm, the last five as chief executive officer. In her free time she volunteered with the Avon Junior Athletic Association (AJAA) because her son played on the Avon Baseball Club. She served on AJAA board for two years until the previous executive director left the position in the fall of 2020. In his absence, Abernathy stepped in to help out and was officially appointed as executive director in April of 2021.
“I decided to completely flip my world upside down [by taking the job], and I’m so glad I did,” says Abernathy, who has been blown away by the intricate day-to-day details that accompany the position. “I don’t think people realize how many details go into getting a sports program kicked off and through. I certainly didn’t.”
Abernathy lives by the mantra, “Seek first to understand.”
“It’s so easy to make assumptions,” she says. “I ask people to just take the time to listen because those assumptions may be false. It adds a sense of understanding when you have knowledge of all those details.”
Going forward, she strives to be proactive rather than reactive in nature. That’s why when she first started, she sent out a community survey to get a pulse on what people wanted. Many requested year-round basketball, so the AJAA leaders are looking into that.
The AJAA can only function with volunteers. The lack of volunteers is what delays programs every year.
“That was something I didn’t understand when I was a parent,” Abernathy says. “Every time a season kicked off and got delayed a little bit, I was like, ‘What’s going on? Why are they not organized?’ The ability to get coaches is so difficult.”
The organization has also experienced a major shortage of umpires across the nation, and this predates COVID-19.
“It’s like pulling teeth trying to find umpires,” she says. “We just have to apply patience and kindness during this time. I hope people will grant us grace and understanding because we’re all here for the kids.”
The AJAA staff and volunteers like to get involved in community activities as much as possible. For instance, when bridges and trees at the Avon Outdoor Learning Center were vandalized earlier this year, AJAA volunteers went out to scrub off the spray paint. In the fall when Avon High School experienced flooding, Abernathy’s team hustled over to the school to donate T-shirts for those who got drenched.
The AJAA, which has been around since 1963, first started as a baseball league. Through the past 58 years, it has grown to include 4,000 children and 22 different programs. Basketball, which currently includes 1,100 kids, gets capped out early every year due to gym space. Besides basketball and football, other popular sports are rugby, junior runners and volleyball.
When COVID-19 hit, the entire spring program shut down. Once winter sports rolled around, students got to play, but spectators weren’t allowed in the gyms.
“It’s hard as a parent to not be involved in watching your kids play so their understanding and patience was appreciated,” Abernathy says. “There is so much we don’t have control over.”
The pandemic has had a financial impact on the organization.
“AJAA runs on a lot of donors and sponsorships, but our normal sponsors were unable to contribute because of their own circumstances,” Abernathy says.
Besides teaching perspective and patience, COVID-19 was also a reminder for just how much sports can affect physical, emotional and mental well-being. The social aspect alone for kids can be significant.
“I remember going to a T-ball game and watching kids in the dugout,” Abernathy says. “When they are around one another, their moods lighten and that’s exactly what they need right now – laughter and fun.”
Six years ago Abernathy and her husband adopted Indy, an all-grey Great Dane, into their family. Earlier this year, they added to the family when they adopted Stella.
“The dogs fill that void since I couldn’t have more children,” she says. “They are everything to me.”
The family chose to adopt Stella when Abernathy suffered a health setback in the summer of 2021.
“I’m a brittle diabetic, meaning that I don’t feel my lows until I pass out,” she says. “In June that happened when I was driving.”
When Abernathy was recuperating, Indy stayed beside her.
“I started to freak out knowing that Great Danes tend to live an average of five to seven years,” Abernathy says.
As luck would have it, she learned of someone who had a Great Dane puppy in need of a new home. Enter Stella.
“She’s a hot mess, but sometimes you need something light and fun in your life,” Abernathy says. “Indy and Stella make us laugh every day.”
The Abernathys love to take their pooches to Washington Township Park and let them run around in the creek. Biking is another favorite activity.
“During COVID we found a path to the Dairy Queen in Brownsburg,” Abernathy says. “We mapped it out and did that route often. It takes 24 minutes.”
Biking for ice cream. Hoosier dreams continue.
The AJAA offices are located at 866 South County Road 625 East in Avon. For more information, call 317-839-5480 or visit ajaaonline.com.