By Chris Rotolo |
LINCROFT – “This stinks.”
It was 28 years ago that Paul Hooker was taken aback by that retort.
He was conversing with a girl who had to watch her brother’s baseball game from the sidelines because she was restricted to a wheelchair.
At the time, Hooker didn’t realize the impact those two little words would have on the course of his life, nor could he forecast how impactful they would be on the lives of so many special needs children and young adults in his own community.
“She was frustrated,” Hooker said of the girl, a friend of his daughter’s. “She couldn’t understand why her brother had an opportunity to be on the field, while she was on the outside looking in.”
From that moment forward, Hooker and his wife Margo made it their mission to provide more to a growing special needs community in search of recreational sports options.
“Twenty-eight years ago we started with a Little League softball program that lasted eight weeks and the kids and their parents had such a positive experience that we knew we needed to continue and expand what we had to offer,” said Hooker, who lived in Middletown.
From the success of that initial softball offering came the nonprofit organization Challenged Youth Sports and a collection of programs that includes bowling, tennis, basketball, flag football, golf, soccer, beach volleyball, dance and yoga.
Two years ago the organization adjusted its title, rebranding and renaming the program RallyCap Sports.
The organization offers kids ages 7 and up a four to eight week sports season centered on one sport. The kids, accompanied by a volunteer called a “buddy,” practice special skills and drills. There is an opportunity to participate in a scrimmage or game-play at the end of the season. Registration fees are only $20 per player.
RallyCap Sports is now ready to expand nationally.
“We’re never going to lose sight of the community we have here at home, but we think this is a model that can be reproduced and work for other kids and other families around the country,” Hooker said.
A graduate of Bowling Green State University in Ohio, Hooker looked to his alma mater when he started thinking about expansion. At a networking event at the school of business, he crossed paths with Luke Sims, a graduating senior with philanthropic motivations.
“I pitched Paul on how I thought we could grow his organization and he bought in immediately,” said Sims, who spent his senior year interning for Hooker. Upon graduation he became the organization’s first employee.
“When I first began attending Bowling Green, like many of my classmates, I thought I was destined to be chained to a desk somewhere in corporate America,” Sims said. “But that never seemed right to me. I’m more concerned with making the community around me a better place and RallyCap Sports lets me do that. It’s very rewarding to know that a day’s work can help change lives for the better.”
Sims’ blueprint for expansion included tapping into colleges and universities, where he hopes to involve student participants and gain use of athletic facilities.
In just two years RallyCap Sports has used this model to expand its operation to 12 chapters, including groups at Bowling Green, Ohio State, Central Michigan, Seton Hall and Ramapo College in New Jersey.
“We can see the progress and, what makes it even more special, is that it’s not us approaching these schools, but rather students taking it upon themselves,” Hooker said.
According to Hooker and Sims, RallyCap Sports is not allowed to approach collegiate institutions about founding new chapters. The initiative must come from student, faculty and community organizers.
“What’s truly special about the expansion is that a lot of it has come from within,” Hooker said. “We’ll have local high school kids come out and participate as volunteers for class credit or National Honor Society. But what we’re finding more and more is that they fall in love with it. Now, when they graduate, they’re able to take the program with them to college and we can provide them resources to launch it.”
This article was first published in the April 12-19, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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