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Champion Athletes in Missouri

ASB volunteers find sports is about more than the score


In the slide show above, Meghan Chura (SAR’12) and Tiffani Burks (SAR’12) reflect on their spring break experiences in Springfield, Mo., playing sports with people who have developmental disabilities.

Following up on our “Tweets from the Road” series, BU Today this week rolls out four stories on this year’s Alternative Spring Breakstwo each from New York City and Missouri.

Corey Hoffman stands in the center of a church gymnasium, a basketball cradled in his arms. A goofy grin is on his face as he eyes the hoop.

“Corey, why don’t you move closer,” Tiffani Burks suggests, dribbling a ball toward him. “It’s a lot easier if you …”

Her advice goes unheeded as Hoffman launches the ball. It sails into the net with a satisfying swoosh. “Whoa,” Burks mutters.

Successful half-court shots are rare among even the most accomplished basketball players. What makes Hoffman’s achievement even more impressive is that he has cerebral palsy.

“I was amazed,” says Burks (SAR’12), one of nine Boston University student volunteers who traveled more than 1,300 miles to spend a week working at Champion Athletes of the Ozarks, an organization in Springfield, Mo., that teaches sports and life skills to people with developmental disabilities. The trip, arranged by BU’s Community Service Center, was part of Alternative Spring Breaks.

A self-proclaimed jock, Burks played varsity basketball and volleyball in high school. Nonetheless, she arrived in Missouri with reservations. “While I’m confident in my athletic abilities,” she says, “I’d never worked with people who have disabilities.”

Playing sports with Hoffman quelled her concerns. “It was an incredible experience,” she says. “I learned as much from him as he did from me — probably more.”

For Meghan Chura (SAR’12), a member of BU’s Figure Skating Club, coming to Springfield to spend the week at Champion Athletes was a return to her roots: Chura coached autistic clients in figure skating during high school. “They required more focus and one-on-one attention,” she recalls. “They couldn’t process the information as fast as the other skaters, and it was really rewarding when they finally figured out how to do certain moves.”

Chura couldn’t stay away from the rink. On Tuesday, volunteers and athletes gathered at Springfield’s Media Com Ice Park for a raucous game of broomball. “Everyone had so much fun,” she says. “We were laughing and falling all over the place.”

Founded in 2002 by Susan Miles, Champion Athletes of the Ozarks integrates athletics with reading, arithmetic, cooking, and banking. “Combining the areas isn’t such a stretch,” Miles says. “You can teach a lot through sports: team structure, self-discipline, self-confidence.”

Many of the athletes are overweight, and those with Down syndrome suffer from loose joints. “Playing sports helps us tighten and strengthen our muscles,” Miles says. “It also helps improve balance and coordination.”

There’s a risk factor in playing sports, Burks adds. “Some of it is purely instinctual,” she says, “but there’s also a huge mental component. You have to think strategically and always be alert.”

Those are invaluable lessons for the 500 athletes enrolled in Champion Athletes of the Ozarks. “The program provides stability,” says Marieljane Bastien (CAS’13). “It’s like a second family.”

The organization is engaged with students enrolled in Central High School’s special education program. On Thursday, the BU volunteers headed downtown to participate in a track-and-field day. Despite cold temperatures, high winds, and rain, athletes spent nearly two hours outdoors.

While Burks and Michaela Lacy (ENG’13) organized a soccer game on one end of the field, Chura and Mary Catherine Chase (CGS’10, CAS’12) played bocce ball on the other. “A lot of the athletes we interacted with were pretty low-functioning,” says Chase. “In some instances, we had to hand them the ball and help them throw it.”

Chase chose to participate in the Springfield trip because her older brother has autism. “Several years ago, John asked my mother if there are other people like him,” she recalls. “I feel like when I bring awareness to the cause, I’m helping him, too.”

“Working with Corey and the other athletes gave me a broader insight into how people work and learn,” Burks says. “Just because you do it differently doesn’t make you any less of a person. And that’s a good thing.”

Tomorrow, personal perspectives after a week in Springfield. Meanwhile, watch Burks’ and Lacy’s interview with Springfield’s KY3 News here.

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @vickywaltz.

Read about other spring break initiatives from around the country and from previous years here.


One Comment on Champion Athletes in Missouri

  • Jenn Guiry on 03.25.2010 at 1:55 pm

    So very powerful

    Wow what a powerful, rich experience, thank you for sharing. I have work my whole life with children and adults with varying degrees of disabilities and think that everyone at some point or another in life should have to work with this population. I think through programs like this, students like you guys and media pieces like this we can slowly breakdown stereotypes, reduce ignorance and fear and help those with disabilities realize that with help ad effort, they can accomplish just about anything that the rest of the population can.
    Vicky thank you for capturing the essence of the work you guys did in Springfield and bringing it to light for the rest of us. Great piece, I didn’t want the slide show to end.

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