ALLENDALE, Mich. — Mary Free Bed's annual wheelchair sports camp is back after it had to be canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, giving over 40 young athletes the chance to compete with others facing similar challenges.
The annual five-day camp is hosted by Mary Free Bed's Wheelchair and Adaptive Sports program. Kids ages 7- 18 are broken into age groups and given the chance to play 11 different sports: basketball, cycling, dodge ball, football, Frisbee golf, handball, kayaking, lacrosse, sled hockey, softball and tennis.
“It's for kids with physical disabilities to learn how to play sports, or just to come and socialize and be with other kids that have the same challenges that they may have,” said Maria Besta, camp manager.
Held in and around Grand Valley State University's athletic field house on their Allendale campus, many of the campers return year after year.
Some campers end up becoming instructors for the camp, like Gabe Denbraber, who now plays wheelchair basketball for the University of Illinois.
“The first time I came here was in like 2012, 2011, and I came in, and I saw everyone who was just like me. And as a kid who's younger... trying to find your way, it's really huge to find a community that is just like you,” Denbraber told FOX 17 Monday afternoon.
“I’ve been doing volunteering for a couple years now, and they wanted me back as an instructor. I love coming back and giving back to the community and trying to teach these kids that there is something more than what you're given— there's an opportunity to go play college, there's an opportunity to go into the Paralympics.”
Grayson Gibbs, who has been coming to the camp for 5 years now, wants to take a similar path, saying, "Yeah, I want to do basketball in college.”
Gibbs was hanging out with a new friend he met on Monday named Ben Perkins, who was there for his first year of camp.
“It makes you feel fit in, like, if you had the worst disability, they will let you play sports and you fit in with everybody,” Perkins told us.
It's an opportunity not just to compete, make friends and memories, but also to expand the campers' perspectives of what is possible.
"Being a part of this makes our campers feel like they're on an even playing field, that they're a part of a group that can participate in sports, just like their siblings can or just like their friends can," Besta said.
"And this gives them that opportunity."
You can find more information on Mary Free Bed's Wheelchair and Adaptive Sports program website.