City News

Event for special-needs kids proves a winner for everyone

A 7-year-old busybody from Charlotte, Tylih Bennett couldn't contain his enthusiasm as he quickly bounced from one football-themed activity to another. His favorite was holding a football while jockeying through some Hula-Hoops to imitate a running back drill.

Tylih was ready for some football, you could say.

Donning a nifty, forest-green jersey and customized with his last name on the back, Bennett was one of 17 school-age children participating in the first Ready, Set, Hike event sponsored by UNC Charlotte's Recreational Services/Intramural department Nov. 1 on the campus' west fields.

Wanting to use the department's recreational resources, members of the department began discussing a community service project last spring. Under the leadership of student intern Leah Cameron and intramural Assistant Director Ryan Holt, the Ready, Set, Hike program was geared toward special-needs children and the theme of flag football – a sport in which UNC Charlotte has produced national intramural champions in recent years.

During the summer, Holt and Cameron started putting together ideas for an event and, when the fall semester began, Cameron and the student supervisors started turning them into reality.

On Nov. 1, under a cloudless sky and a temperature in the low 70s, participants were welcomed with their personalized jerseys, bearing “Recreational Services” on the front, and a goody bag filled with donated prizes.

Each participant was assigned a coach, one of the 25 or so student volunteers, who escorted their players from station to station.

Cameron invited youths by sending e-mails through school systems, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Union and Cabarrus counties.

For the first hour, players were treated to carnival games, including a football-toss game featuring a life-size wooden cutout of New England Patriots receiver Randy Moss built by Cameron's husband, Mike.

Dr. Jeffrey Barto, a UNC Charlotte kinesiology professor, was invited to bring his Superman exercise in which players got to roll over a set of cylindrical mats.

“Everything is kind of built up to address sensory source of needs,” said Nancy Nestor, president of the Mecklenburg County chapter of the Autism Society. “And it's fun.”

For the next 30 minutes, players stepped through Hula-Hoops, ran around cones and knocked over tackling dummies as they practiced ball-carrying drills. Junior student supervisor Marie Kemp, Tylih Bennett's coach, encouraged him to practice his touchdown dance, following it up with a high-five.

Players were then treated to a performance by the Carolina Galaxy Supernovas, a competitive cheerleading team from Gastonia made up of 10 special-needs adults.

“It's just fun to be outside in front of people,” said cheerleader Leslie Thornburg, 23, of Cherryville. “We appreciate being asked to come and cheer.”

To close the event, players carried a football across a goal line past some volunteers serving as defenders, amid the loud cheers of observing parents and spectators. Pam Quarles, whose 8-year-old nephew, Rodell Nelson, was participating, could barely control her enthusiasm.

“Mama needs a new pair of shoes,” she shouted. “You better get that defense ready. You better get these babies some contracts.”

As Holt concluded, he didn't “have any multi-million-dollar contracts” for the players, but he and Cameron did pass out trophies. The hugs they got from many of the participants were worth more than that, anyway.