Traveling, spending a week away from home and learning new skills is part of a student athlete’s life whether they’re in elementary or high school, and for those involved with Slippery Rock’s VIP Sports program, getting children physically active is part of their mission.
As part of the adapted physical activity program (APA), VIP Sports serves children ages five through 18 with sport and recreational opportunities throughout the year including an annual ski trip, clinics held in the spring and fall and its most well-known program, the weeklong camp held on-and-off campus for a week during the summer. Student athletes from areas throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and as far away as Maryland have been accepted to participate in the summer camp that exclusively serves those who are blind or have visual impairments.
Adapted physical activity faculty member and VIP Sports Director, Wendy Fagan, started the program a decade ago as a way to get students involved in athletics and to show just how many opportunities are available for those who are blind or visually impaired.
No sport is off limits for the students and volunteers to try, with judo, track and field and archery being among the list of the students’ favorite sports that are offered annually at the summer camp.
“Most people don’t understand how much a person that’s blind can do, and so they often limit them when it comes to physical activity,” Fagan said. “Our mission is to get the word out and educate people that are in the school systems that don’t know that, and get these kids physically active.”
The camp and clinics run by the students from the disability sports class aren’t restricted to help from a certain major or from the university as Fagan encourages anyone that has a desire to help others to get involved with VIP Sports. Volunteers help the athletes learn new skills and they also participate in sporting events with the athletes to assist those with greater degrees of visual impairments.
“If someone comes to me and says that they really want to do this, then I make sure they understand exactly what is expected of them,” Fagan said. “I will give any kid a chance because I don’t think there’s anyone that couldn’t do it if they’re open to trying something different and have a heart for working with other people.”
The Pennsylvania Lions Club District 14-N, a division of the Lions Club International, which is a service organization best known for helping individuals with visual impairments, has helped to fund VIP Sports for the last seven years. Without their involvement, and additional support from the SRU Lions Club and the Slippery Rock club, the program’s summer camp might not have been possible.
“If a kid calls and says that they want to come to camp, but they don’t have the money, then we help them find their local Lions Club and then we give them information so that they can go to them and ask for help,” Fagan said.
Graduate adapted physical activity major Dana O’Neill, 23, has been involved with the program for the last two years, and is interning with VIP Sports during the summer, where her main focus will be the summer camp being held from June 8-12. O’Neill became involved with the program after talking with its former intern and her former soccer teammate, Lauren Impey, who asked her to become involved.
O’Neill works with Fagan to choose the sports that the athletes will participate in, and also takes into consideration feedback from the athletes themselves on what sports they enjoy and would like to continue doing, and ones that they’d like to see implemented into the program. In addition to the athletes’ standby favorite sports, this summer, golf, rowing at Three Rivers Rowing Association and a trip to Flight Trampoline Park have been added to the camp to give students new opportunities.
“When it came to the trampoline park, for people with visual impairments, that is the perfect opportunity for them,” O’Neill said. “The other sports we have are track and field competitions, I’ve coached archery, and we’ve had horseback riding at the equestrian center. What matters is the students’ ability as opposed to their disability.”
In the future, O’Neill hopes to see VIP Sports continue to grow as they spread the word for people that are blind and have visual impairments, and welcome athletes from greater distances. She’s seen athletes as young as five participate in the program and has had former volunteers come back to participate in the program as athletes.
“We had five year olds come in last year, which shows that parents trust us,” O’Neill said. I just hope that we can continue to get more athletes and advocate for people with visual impairments because they aren’t as limited as people might think. We had a girl volunteer and now she’s an athlete, and she always talks to her doctors who spread the word themselves about the program.”
For students that are interested in volunteering their time, VIP Sports will be having a sports night on Friday, April 24 in the Aebersold Recreation Center (ARC), and is looking for volunteers for their summer camp in June.