Every Thursday afternoon, the Lowell Avenue club hosts games for its Challenge Basketball league, a 10-year-old program for youths with special needs. Last week, the club had 24 players, divided into the blue and white teams — making plays, lighting up the scoreboard and drawing cheers from the crowd in the gymnasium.
The referees aren’t there to enforce traditional basketball rules. Rather, they make sure everyone gets a chance to take the ball up the court on fast breaks, take shots and grab rebounds.
Club Inclusion Director Lisa Sughayar said a team’s success is judged by the smiles on players’ faces.
“We just encourage teamwork and sharing, having a good time and cheering,” she said.
Parents of players said that, win or lose, a Thursday afternoon game is always a big event.
Carlos Jimenez said his son, 17-year-old Cody, had been with the program for 10 years, and the games were Cody’s chance to be among friends.
“It’s just to get him more social and get him out of the house,” Carlos said. “This is the only time they get to be outside and no one judges them. They fit in. Whether he talks to people or doesn’t talk, or whether they dribble or don’t dribble, here it’s just to have fun and get a little exercise, too.”
Christine Cammons said her daughter Lisa, 21, had been a member of the club for nine years and took to the basketball team right away.
“You see the energy around them and the excitement,” Cammons said. “They just want to be here and be part of it. It opens them up a lot. They can let out a lot of that energy that gets bottled up in the classroom.”
Get the games started
Sughayar said Challenge Basketball began when a youth with cerebral palsy became a fan of the club’s regular basketball program, and though he couldn’t walk, he was still passionate about getting into the games.
“He sat on the sidelines begging that he wanted to play in the league,” Sughayar said. “We started a league just for him, and ever since then it’s been booming, and the kids have been having fun.”
Teams play for eight weeks. At the end, everyone gets together for an awards banquet.
Club Operations Director Rob Pane said the league highlights a couple of the Boys & Girls Clubs’ goals.
“When you come in and watch one of these games, it takes you back to what we’re all about: Make sure every kid has something fun and safe to do after school, get them active, and get them participating in all of our different programs,” Pane said.
He added that while sports are a big draw, they often allow club staff to introduce educational programs to members who go for the competition and camaraderie.
“The whole thought behind the inclusion program is to include them (special-needs members) in everything that we’re doing,” Pane said, “so every program we have at the club, they’re a part of and they can participate.”