Tuesday, February 25th, 2014
Dads running sports teams in which their kids participate is nothing unusual. A father who starts a sled hockey team for youth with physical disabilities is. Meet Bill Greenberg and his son, Sam, who’s 10.
Sam was born with a birth defect of the spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed below the waist. Several years ago, his dad launched the Wheelchair Sports Federation New York Sled Rangers, a group of 24 disabled athletes ages 5 to 23 in New York City. “When we began playing, none of the kids knew that they could play competitive sports,” Bill says. “And none of the parents knew that their kids could play competitive sports.” Here’s information—and inspiration—from him.
When did you get the idea to do the sled hockey team?
The sled hockey team had been on my mind for several years. When Sam was about 5 years old I was casting about for things that I thought he could do. Somewhere along the way I found an email address for John Hamre of the Wheelchair Sports Federation. John put me in touch with the wheelchair basketball people and the sled hockey people. We went to see the basketball guys first; they were very nice, and they invited us to a practice, and to a night at Madison Square Garden where they put on an exhibition at halftime. It was cool, but Sam didn’t really like it very much. Then we went to see the sled hockey people. I thought it would be like the basketball, that we would watch and play around the margins, but I had no idea that Sam would skate that night. As soon as we walked in, there was Victor Calise [Commissioner at New York City's Mayor's Office for People With Disabilities] and he held up a kid-sized sled and asked Sam if he wanted to skate. Sam was mesmerized. He didn’t even speak, he just nodded his head up and down. Sam skated for two hours that night.
At the end of the night, I asked how we can stay involved and Vic put me in touch with a local kids team called The Rangers that played out of Woodbridge, New Jersey. Sam and his able-bodied brother, Max, played on that team for three years. Vic and I remained in touch, and we became friends. We talked during those years about how we could get enough kids to have a New York City team. I kept telling Vic that if he could get the kids, I’d manage the team. Finally, in the spring of 2012, we felt like it was time to try. We had about eight kids that we thought were committed to trying it out. Now we are 24 kids, with six more who are going to try it out in March.
What was it like for Sam to get out there on the ice, for the first time?
He loved everything about it. He loved putting on lots of big equipment. He loved going fast.
And what was it like for you, as Sam’s dad, to see that?
I had intellectually known and believed that there was plenty of opportunity for Sam to be active. In fact, when Sam was just a few months old and my wife and I were learning that Sam was disabled for the first time, one of the doctors said to us “I’m sorry to tell you this, but your son is not going to be a professional soccer player.” Even at the time, I understood that to mean that being a professional soccer player was the only thing that was not an option for him as he got older. And not only that, but it’s not an option for 99.99% of the population, so it’s not even a big loss to have that option taken away. What has been most interesting and comforting has been meeting and befriending people like Victor Calise and some of the other adult Sled Rangers, so I can see what the life of a disabled adult looks like, and that helps me be a better parent to Sam.
What sort of changes have you seen in Sam, and other kids on the team, since you started it?
It’s so easy for physically disabled kids to be left behind. Sam can be having a nice time with his friends, eating lunch or talking, and then all of a sudden they are off, running around, up the hill, on playground equipment, and Sam is left behind. It’s heartbreaking. But I have seen him talk to his friends about sled hockey. When Sam wheels into his classroom, and he tells his friends that he is a hockey player, I can see it changes the way his friends look at him and treat him. And that has an impact on how Sam thinks about himself. I have most definitely seen the change in other kids.
The most common thing that other kids say is how much they enjoy being on a team. Not just being part of a team and being different, but being a real integral part of a team with other kids like themselves. On the night of our first practice, Spencer said, “Mom, I’m finally on a team!” Francisco said, “I never imagined that I could be involved in anything like this.” Emma commented to me about how she used to play kickball but her friends would treat her differently and give her free trips to first base. She was on a team, but not really. This is different. And it’s not just about the kids, the parents are just as amazed. Edward’s father said, “I never thought that I would see my son, on a team, playing sports.” Te’s dad said, “In all my years of parenting, nothing has brought me more joy and satisfaction than hanging out with the Sled Rangers.” We are absolutely changing perceptions, increasing independence, self-confidence and self-esteem. We are literally changing lives.
You mention that Sam turned out to be the most athletic of your three children. Tell me a little bit about that.
I’m not very athletic and my other two kids are not, either. It’s just ironic that Sam enjoys sports and he is disabled. Before I was involved in the disability community, I was vaguely aware of wheelchair basketball, and I had seen the movie Murderball, but that’s about it. Now I see how important it is for all disabled kids to be involved in something, anything, active. Just because they are disabled doesn’t mean they have to sit inside playing video games. Vic taught me that, and another coach of disabled athletes, Jimmy Cuevas, also taught me that. He runs a fantastic adaptive track and field program out of Bayonne, New Jersey, and Sam participated in that for two years.
How have you raised funding?
We have gotten by with small grants up till now. The Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) has generously sponsored some of our players and paid for sleds and equipment for many of them. My old employer, UBS, gave a reasonable grant. Some of the other parents on the team have had their companies contribute some matching funds. The UJA has given. Most significantly, I hosted a fundraiser at Bryant Park on February 5th. We had about 300 people there despite the weather. You can see photos of the event on our website.
You can also find on our website a copy of the video that we showed at the event. It was made by John Cole, the father of one of our players. I am utterly blown away every time I watch it. It perfectly captures the tone of what we are doing and what it means. It’s three minutes long and if you have three minutes to spare, I would highly encourage you to watch it. I didn’t make it, and so I think I’m being unbiased when I say I think it’s profound. You can see it here.
Many parents want their kids with disabilities involved in sports, but don’t have programs like this in their areas. What’s your advice for those parents?
I think an equal problem is that programs exist but parents don’t know. We need to get the word out, to raise the profile of disabled sports in general, to start to change the wider culture and perceptions and awareness of what disabled people are able to do. Like so many areas of life, I find that if there really aren’t programs, if there really isn’t an opportunity, then nobody is going to do it but you. Obama said when he was first elected (and this is not a political statement), “We are the people we have been waiting for.” There is no such thing as “they.” It’s only “us” and sometimes that means “me.”
What is one of the biggest misconceptions you feel that people have about kids with disabilities?
Oh, there are so many. I still get, “What’s wrong with him?” I usually answer “nothing” but that makes people confused. People are afraid of disability, they think either that Sam is helpless and are saddened (“Oh, poor thing”) or they don’t believe that it’s permanent (“Science does amazing things”). Another one I get and don’t like is, “Oh, since he was paralyzed from birth, he doesn’t know any better so that’s OK.” I think people say these these because they think they make me feel better, but it’ really to make themselves feel better.
As I said before, we have to raise awareness. We have to have more disabled people out in public, in plain view, on the streets, on the buses, in jobs, on the field, on the ice, everywhere. So much of accessibility, I find, doesn’t cost any extra money, it just requires people to think and plan. The way to do this, I am convinced, is to be out there as much as we can, showing the world what we can do.
By the way, this is the first year the networks will be covering the Paralymics on TV.
Bill is looking to expand his team, so if you are in the New York City area, be in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org—it’s totally free to join.
From my other blog:
Images courtesy of Bill GreenburgAdd a Comment