If laughter heals all wounds then children's laughter is the most magical of elixirs. Watching a few dozen boys and girls laughing, shouting, flirting and chasing each other around on a basketball court can cure whatever ails you. Such laughter can heal children as well. For the last 20 years or so, Berkeley-based BORP (Bay Area Outreach & Recreation Program) has been providing a hefty dose of Saturday feel-good medicine for hundreds of Bay Area children with physical disabilities.
“It's kind of a chance to be like everybody around you,” said Sarah Marks, a Contra Costa teenager. “Some people have trouble fitting in with their disabilities. Not really for me, really. I have a lot of friends in this program.”
Marks' favorite sports included wheelchair basketball and track, including the 1500-meter singles race where she holds the national track record.
“We've been coming for at least five years,” said Sarah's mother, Laura Marks. “She really wanted to play sports. We started coming to play wheelchair basketball and then they got her in a track chair.”
Every Saturday children come from all over the greater Bay Area, from as far away as Santa Cruz and Sacramento, to Berkeley's James Kenney Recreation Center to compete on a level playing field.
“We're really the only program that does all the stuff we do in the whole Bay Area,” said Tim Orr, BORP's Youth Program Coordinator. “There is a program similar to ours in San Jose, but they don't serve teenagers.”
Orr started working with BORP as a fundraiser and administrative specialist.
“My roommate, a guy in an electric wheelchair, asked me to get involved in 1984,” he said. “I met some parents and some kids who were involved in Special Olympics. They really didn't like it because they thought they were getting treated as if they had mental disabilities. A little too special.”
Founded in 1976, BORP served the unmet activity and social needs of folks with disabilities, mainly adults. In 1986 Orr secured grants which allowed BORP to start serving the physical activity needs of disabled children as well. Today BORP's revenues come from a wide variety of sources, predominantly foundation grants, corporate donations, individual donations and fundraisers but not government entitlement programs.
Orr believes the biggest struggle BORP has yet to overcome is outreach. On average 50 to 60 children attend each Saturday session, but Orr believes the number of Bay Area children eligible to benefit from BORP's weekend program may run as high as 5,000
“The reason there are so few wheelchair sports programs in the whole country [is because] outreach is very hard to do,” Orr said. “It's hard to get people, and their parents, to commit to coming out on a regular basis. And a lot of them need help with transportation and stuff to be able to do it. There are so many kids with Cerebral Palsy, Spinal Bifida. A lot of kids are amputees, like our big guy Marcus. He walks all the time but he has a disability that doesn't allow him to run or jump so he can't play against able-bodied high school sports.”
Lamile Perry, 20, lives in Berkeley and studies at Laney Community College.
“I was the national track champion last year,” Perry said with pride. “My specialty is in track. I'm a sprinter. I also play a little bit of basketball. I've been involved in BORP since I was about five or six. Right here in my hometown. I only live about 15 minutes away from here actually. Last year we had a guy that came all the way from Oregon. We get people from all over."
Perry was born with Cerebral Palsy. Although he has had numerous operations, he said the surgeries have actually increased his mobility problems.
“I don't even look at myself as being disabled. If I can do whatever an able bodied person can do, this chair don't stop me. I think [BORP] really helps people in wheelchairs because it gives them a chance to do sports. At all the schools it seems as though you've got to be able-bodied to play sports but here everybody is the same. You get a chance to do what everybody else is doing. You get to play sports. You get to travel. We get to live life like every other athlete is doing. If they get to play sports and travel, why can't we?”
“It's a great program because you get to know other people and you get to know what they go through,” said Antonia Gutierrez, 15, of Oakland. “It’s fun ‘cause you get to meet people that have your problems. They understand what you're going through and they don't make fun of you. You know?”
Hugo Lopez is the parent of Jason Lopez, a 15 year-old Junior at Abraham Lincoln High School in San Francisco. When Jason was three he suffered a spinal cord injury.
“We got him in here when he was about 6. He loves it and I think it's fabulous,” said the senior Lopez. “It's the only time he gets to interact with his peers, people in wheelchairs, and it's good exercise for him. He plays basketball and he's in track and field. It's really the only physical activity he gets during the week. He goes to school but it's just a lot of class work. They don't let him really participate with the school [physical exercise] programs.”
Lopez's enthusiasm is echoed by fellow parent Laura Marks, who also teaches in the public school system.
“This is a group that's accepting of everybody which I don't see as much in our public schools,” Marks said. “This is such a great education for Sarah, not only for the sports, but [for the] kids with different abilities, backgrounds, different places where they live, different family situations. The diversity here is nowhere else. We struggle with the kids and have disappointments because they have struggles. It feels good to see them succeed here and it carries over into other areas of their lives. [One of the]moms said to me, ‘You know I can't tell you how wonderful this has been. His grades are better. His attitude is better. And it's all because he's coming to play wheelchair basketball on Saturday.’”
Bay Area Outreach & Recreation Program BORP
830 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, CA 94710
Phone (510) 849-4663