By Chris Nichols
Special to the Daily Planet
When Khemnes Fisher’s eyesight deteriorated after high school, the three-sport athlete from San Pablo worried he would never enjoy the thrill of competition again. With the help of the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program, however, a new world has opened up to Fisher. Participating in innovative and challenging sports and recreation programs for local disabled and visually impaired residents, Fisher and many others have found a home at BORP, a Berkeley-based nonprofit.
“I hesitated at first,” said the 35-year-old Fisher of joining BORP’s program six months ago. “I still had enough sight to play sports. But as my sight got worse I needed some kind of release.”
Providing such release and a community network for disabled athletes since 1976, the nonprofit is one of a kind in the Bay Area. The teamwork, competition and independence generated by the organization’s programming was showcased Saturday, as BORP celebrated the 17th annual Opening Day of its Youth Sports Program.
Dozens of disabled athletes sweated it out during the daylong event at the James Kenney Recreation Center in north Berkeley, playing a wide array of competitive and contact sports. The morning’s first competition pitted visually impaired athletes against one another in the innovative Goalball. In the game, athletes zip a 3-pound leather ball across a wooden court in hopes of scoring a goal against defenders lined up on the opposite side of the gym. In order to stop the ball, which makes a ringing sound as it whizzes along the floor, defenders rely on their hearing to position themselves for a block.
Though he’s still learning the sport, invented in 1946 in Germany for World War II veterans to provide a game for those blinded in combat, Fisher says he’s picked up a few of Goalball’s strategic points.
“There’s definitely a technique for blocking the ball,” he said. “The center has to work the hardest, directing the rest of the team and sliding all over the place.”
The second competition of the action-packed day featured a game of wheelchair basketball. The sport, which is played internationally by disabled athletes, largely follows the same rules as able-bodied hoops except that players may push their wheelchair forward twice in between dribbles.
As member of BORP’s Bay Cruisers wheelchair basketball team, 14-year-old Matt Escamilla says the fast-paced sport provides both fun and competition. Escamilla noted, however, that many able bodied individuals do not realize the competitive nature and skill possessed by disabled athletes.
“A lot of people think we can’t play. That gets on my nerves sometimes but we just use it as motivation,” Escamilla said.
BORP organizers and participants are quick to state that they are not a part of the Special Olympics program that organizes events for mentally and physically disabled athletes.
“A lot of the physically disabled kids in the area complained that the Special Olympics were not meeting their needs as athletes. BORP provides them with a separate and more challenging option for their different needs,” said Tim Orr, a Youth Coordinator with BORP since 1984.
Perhaps the most important part of the nonprofit’s programming, according to many participants and parents, is the sense of community and confidence developed among the athletes. Many of BORP’s older athletes assist BORP’s younger members with tips and advice learned long ago.
“The kids share things between themselves, their struggles and their challenges. Even the parents do the same thing,” said Laura Marks, whose daughter Sarah has been playing basketball with BORP for several years.
While providing a place to meet and compete, BORP also works to open doors for disabled athletes in mainstream society. Currently, the outreach program has started working to initiate policy change for disabled athletes within California’s high school sports programs.
Ideally, says BORP Director Rick Spitler, disabled athletes would be a part of high school sports programming and contribute to the success of the team. According to Spitler, disabled athletes could compete as a part of the track team, for example, facing off in a separate category against disabled athletes from other high schools but contributing to the total points of the overall meet.
Though the dynamic outreach program provides a haven for disabled athletes young and old, Spitler says gaining support from the mainstream is still a challenge.
“There’s nothing else like this in the Bay Area, which is a real problem. It [disabled sports programming] hasn’t been institutionalized yet,” Spitler said.
For now, a dedicated set of staff and volunteers keep the nonprofit thriving in north Berkeley. Staff members say they hope to expand their programming and possibly open a new center in Oakland with support from the city. Right now, the program receives a grant of $25,000 each year from the city of Berkeley along with access to the James Kenney Recreation Center, a cherished prize in a region with high demands on recreation facilities.
While balls bounced on the court and smiles beamed on the faces of the athletes at Saturday’s Opening Day, parent Laura Marks noted that there is an even larger purpose to the confidence building program, a sentiment expressed by staff, parents and participants alike.
“In the end, the goal is complete independence,” Marks said.