Appeared in Valley Morning Star on October 6, 2012
By Lisa Mitchell-Bennett
Convincing myself to keep plodding along, despite the hot sun and tired legs, I sluggishly jogged down the street one morning. I was feeling sorry for myself, feeling a little old and flabby, and needing to hurry home to get to one of my kids’ next activities. No time for myself. Poor me!
Then I saw them, a boy and his dad, coming toward me. The thin teen child was on a large tricycle-like bike. The dad was running alongside him, literally holding him upright on the bike, supporting his back and helping him move forward, as the boy thrust his crooked body uncontrollably from side to side, his palsy and lack of control over his movement causing both he and his dad to work physically harder than I ever will. They both sweat profusely. But there was a lightness and joy in their step.
They were together, working as a team and working hard. The dad gently urged the boy on. The boy pedaled hard, strained and smiled. It was beautiful and inspiring. It put me to shame.
I stopped to greet them. The dad explained that the boy didn’t speak, but he introduced him and I chatted with them a bit. I congratulated them for their hard work — for it took so very much energy from both of them for this child to be able to be outside exercising on a bike. The dad deferred to his wife. “She’s home with him all week while I’m at work. I try to help out more on the weekends. She is the real hero!”
They are all heroes as far as I am concerned. Here I was complaining about my perfectly functioning, healthy body. I can run and leap and walk and dance. How can I whine about having to exercise, when there are so many who go to great lengths and with much pain just to move their bodies at all. And my little worries about how my body looks — pure vanity.
Having the privilege of knowing children, and adults with special needs has taught me so much about life and love and priorities. This was no exception. It made me wonder about the opportunities kids with these challenges have to be physically active and fit in our community. After all, their need for exercise is just as great if not greater, than yours or mine.
I spoke with Sergio Zarate, co-founder of the local non-profit organization Down by the Border, an association helping children with special needs.
“These kids have three strikes against them when it comes to exercise and physical activity, which is crucial to their therapy and development.
1. Adaptive, appropriate Physical Education programs in the schools have had severe funding cuts in recent years in our state, so they aren’t getting much exercise at school; 2. These are not kids who will be able to participate in team sports after school like other kids; and 3. Many of our parks in the Valley are not set up to be accessible for them to use. Parents are left with few options and little support.
Fortunately in Brownsville some progress has been made. There are now two parks that provide equipment and play areas accessible to all children, whether they are in a wheelchair or whatever their physical limitations may be (Dean Porter Park and the Brownsville Sports Park). We are advocating for more of the parks to be accessible so parents have a place to get outside and exercise, move and play with their special needs kids.”
Sergio and his wife Dolores are dedicated to advocating for the needs of these special kids, inspired by their own daughter Zariah who was born with Down’s Syndrome on September 11, 2001.
“At Down by the Border we have regular picnics where the kids can play and be active and the parents can provide support for each other. If you are interested go to our website www.downbytheborder.org.”
My friend with a special needs child once told me, “In some ways it is freeing. There is none of the pressure for your child to achieve in sports and school in the competitive way I feel with my other kids. I just love her completely and utterly unconditionally. What is hard is how the rest of the world doesn’t accept her.”
We can learn so much from special needs kids and their parents about commitment, love and resilience. Our community is enriched by their presence and we should all care about the ability of these and all children to exercise, play, and be physically active, because we know that every one of us needs this for our health and well-being. Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!)