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Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing

Photography Provided

When Megan and Brandon Paschal stepped inside the natatorium, their stomachs were all aflutter as they anticipated what their son, Nolan, might experience. Nolan, 6 years old at the time, was born with Williams Syndrome, a condition characterized by issues such as cardiovascular disease, developmental delays and learning challenges. Ever since he was young, he gravitated towards sports, but with his condition, it was difficult for him to play in organized leagues. So when he asked to participate in swimming, his parents signed him up for Optimist Miracle Movers (OMM), a program formed in 2010 that invites athletes with special needs to play organized sports, including basketball, softball, soccer and swimming.

Athletes up to age 21 of varying needs and ability levels are paired with a one-on-one “buddy” who acts as a mentor throughout that session to assist during practices and games.

“I sat in one of the chairs to watch — not follow, chase or correct. After an hour, I leaned over to Brandon and said, ‘These are our peeps,’” recalls Megan, noting that often in the land of special needs parenting, misunderstanding, lack of empathy and isolation set it, leaving parents feeling out of place themselves.

“With OMM, parents can observe their child while he or she is getting access to athletics,” Megan says.

For several years, Nolan has participated in swimming through OMM. He walks in, meets up with his buddy and off they go.

“There are no explanations or stares or giggles when he gets loud and excited or says something silly or inappropriate,” Megan says. “OMM is a place that just gets it.”

Anna Sparks, mother to 9-year-old Aaron, agrees. Aaron has participated in OMM for four years — all the while having the same buddy Brayden, who is now in high school.

“When Aaron sees Brayden, he’s super excited, and Brayden feels the same way,” Anna says. “I think it’s a life-changing experience for both of them.”

Not only have the kids made great connections but so have the parents.

“We’ve built a community as we’ve gotten to know other moms and dads,” Anna says. “In fact, we’ve started a Life Group where we gather for Bible study and other activities.”

Each sport lasts four to six weeks long. Basketball takes place in the winter, soccer in the spring, softball in the fall and swimming in the spring and fall.

“Aaron did Upward basketball for a couple of years, but as the kids got older, it became evident he couldn’t participate in that any longer as he couldn’t keep up with the skill levels,” Anna says. “But he still really wanted to play. OMM has made it possible for him to continue doing what he loves.”

The children who participate in OMM struggle with a variety of issues, including autism, Down syndrome and a number or rare genetic syndromes such as Williams syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome and arthrogryposis.

Each four- to six-week session costs just $25, which is why OMM relies heavily on fundraising to pay for equipment such as floatation devices, specialized bats and larger, softer soccer balls.

They also rely on volunteers as the program wouldn’t be possible without them. Because each child has a buddy, if there are 24 athletes, that means the program needs 24 volunteer buddies. OMM also has three swim coaches, two basketball coaches, a soccer coach, a softball coach, and a volunteer coordinator.

“We have a lot of people wearing a lot of different hats,” says Karen Cravotta, OMM’s program director, who is always on the lookout for additional helpers.

Though volunteers only have to commit to one session, many of them find that they so enjoy the interaction with their athlete that they stay on as a volunteer for many years.

“The bonds that develop are super special,” Karen says. “We have pairings that become like little buddy soulmates. They connect in a way that’s hard to describe.”

Many of the volunteers research their buddy’s disorder, and it’s not unusual for them to even pursue careers in health care or educational fields—e.g., nursing, occupational therapy, special ed teaching — because of the connection made at OMM.

Karen notes that programs like this continually draw families to an area.

“When parents know they’re facing a lifetime of special needs, they want to plan ahead,” Karen says. “They look at schools and outside support systems and programs like this so they can give their child the best opportunities for success.”

OMM has partnered with the Richard A. Carlucci Recreation and Aquatic Center for the swimming sessions. Basketball takes place at the Plainfield Community Middle School gymnasium. In 2014, OMM built the Al & Jan Barker Sports Complex Miracle Field south of 40 off Vestal Road for softball and soccer.

Swimming takes place on Wednesday nights from 6:30-7:30. Soccer is on Saturdays at 11 a.m. Softball and basketball are on Sundays.

Some athletes participate in all four sports while others do just one or two.

“A child might find the pool to be really loud with too many distractions, but that same child might love getting out on the basketball court and passing the ball to his friends,” says Karen, who time and again has been inspired by the progress she sees kids make as they move through the sessions.

For example, she’s seen children who were utterly terrified of water progress to the point of being excited to get in.

Karen, a mother of three — Joslyn (8), Elise (6) and Tyce (1) — sometimes has difficulty juggling her hectic life with the hours of volunteer work.

“When I’m frustrated about how I’m going to get everything done, I ask myself why I’m doing this,” Karen says. “Then I see a child put his head underwater for the first time and I’m like, ‘Yup, that’s why.”

She also recalls an amazing boy named Joey who had endured major surgery and was working on walking.

“He’s in the wheelchair most of the time, but during one softball game, he used his walker to walk from third base to home,” Karen says. “Everyone was going crazy cheering for him.”

Last summer, Megan’s son Nolan began asking to play basketball with OMM. She wondered if his desire to play might run its course but Nolan persisted. That’s when she and her husband offered to coach while their daughters acted as buddies for the program. 

“I think Brandon, the girls and I have gotten more out of volunteering than the kids,” Megan says. “OMM is allowing kids, parents and siblings to enjoy different sports in a safe and understanding environment. It’s been a deep blessing to our family.”  

Registrations for each OMM sport opens one month prior to the start of each individual sport season. For additional info, visit plainfieldoptimistclub.com/miraclemovers.

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