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Come Out and Play: Move Along offers adaptive sports for youth, adults

Photo provided by Move Along Inc.

No matter who you are, or how old you are, being active can provide measurable physical and psychological benefits. For those with physical limitations, access to opportunities to be active, and to enjoy the benefits of competition, can be hard to find. Oswego resident Greg Callen has set out to change that.

Callen, who suffered a fall in 2005 that left him paralyzed from the waist down, started Move Along Inc. in 2009. The mission was, and remains, to provide access to adaptive sport and recreation opportunities for those with disabilities (and their friends and loved ones).

“I was driven to get others involved at that point, and to build off of that little program into others that could enable individuals to see opportunity to live again, and rebuild their quality of life through reintegration by athletics and recreation,” says Callen.

A decade in, Move Along now offers adaptive cycling, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair tennis, swimming, kayaking and paddling and sled hockey – 40 programs over a five-county area. Callen and his collaborators are always looking for more activities that can be adapted to be more inclusive, and are currently setting their sights on programs for golf and lacrosse. They also hope to expand the basketball program to include a competitive league.

“The bottom line is, we offer people ways to get out and get moving,” says Jeff Wright, executive director. “Once they get out there and try one of these programs, they realize that they are not defined by their disabilities. It doesn’t matter if someone is 12 or 62. I’ve seen it happen again and again. It’s about taking that first step, and that’s a huge step.”

While Move Along offers programs for all ages, Callen has made outreach to youth a priority. Wright, who has worked with Move Along since 2010, estimates that there are about 30 children and teens in Central New York who are regularly participating in Move Along programs. Always looking to reach more, Wright, and Sled Hockey Manager Susan Arnold, can frequently be seen out in the community coordinating demonstrations of Move Along programs at facilities throughout the Central New York area.

Move Along also conducts inclusive sport demonstration programs for schools, bringing adapted wheelchairs to the schools to show how the equipment enables anyone to enjoy the game of basketball. Move Along has reached about 18,000 students in 16 different schools since its inception. “We believe that going into the schools definitely raises awareness,” says Wright. “This equipment builds inclusion.”

But it’s equipment that is very expensive. An adapted bike costs anywhere from $2,400-$6,000, wheelchairs designed for basketball run upwards of $3,200 and hockey sleds run $1,100 and up. Callen and Wright have built strong relationships with various foundations that assist with the costs. The Veteran’s Administration supplies some funding, as many veterans utilize the organization’s programs.

For most adaptive programs, participants can rent equipment from Move Along for about $75 a week. It’s recommended that they rent the equipment for at least two weeks. “This gives people a chance to see how they will use it,” Wright says. Those who wish to take their participation to the next level – or perhaps aspire to a level of competition that requires more rigorous training – are encouraged to apply for grants through foundations listed on Move Along’s website, www.movealonginc.org.

“There is help out there for those who want to get their own equipment,” Wright says. “To excel, they need [an organization like] J-Rob [a New Hartford-based foundation that supplies adapted sports equipment to children]. Every child who has applied from Move Along has been funded.”

And the benefits are not all physical. “The biggest benefits [our clients] get come from the emotional side,” Wright says. “The laughter and camaraderie they get from doing this carries into other aspects of their lives. [Clients] start to realize – ‘I’m not a disabled individual. I’m an individual with a disability.’”

‘He’s Definitely More Confident’

Myles Favata, 10, is just beginning to see the benefits of Move Along in his life. The young Liverpool resident and his dad, James, have been playing sled hockey through the organization for the past two years. Myles was born with spina bifida and has weathered about a dozen surgeries in his short life. He also developed an intense love of hockey. James Favata says because of Move Along, Myles can actually play the sport he loves. Now, he’s developed a bit of the swagger – and the trademark hair flow – of a true hockey dude.

James Favata, left, and his son Myles Favata of Liverpool regroup following a sled hockey practice at Tennity Ice Pavilion in Syracuse in March. The Favatas both play with modified equipment provided by Move Along Inc. Photo by Tammy DiDomenico

“He’s definitely more confident,” says James Favata. “We knew that it was going to be a different path for him. But seeing him getout there and play, I think he has the motivation to push, which is important from a life perspective. As he grows up, he’s going to need that kind of drive to be as independent as he can be.”

Myles’s love for hockey is unmistakable – as is his positive outlook. “I’m very happy that I get to play hockey,” he says, relaxing after a recent practice at Tennity Ice Pavilion in Syracuse. “I’ve met some friends, and it’s fun.”

James smiles when he remembers finding the Move Along program through a casual Google search. He didn’t have to ask Myles twice. “It wasn’t even a discussion,” he says. “If we didn’t have this program here, we’d have to move somewhere where they did have it.”

Now, Myles, a student at Soule Road Elementary School, is juggling practice schedules and weekend tournaments just like his classmates do. He likes bringing his medals in to show his classmates after a tournament. “I’ve got…I don’t know, five or 10
now,” he says.

Myles plans to try the wheelchair tennis program sometime this spring or summer, but he is focused on hockey for the time being. His goal? To follow former Move Along client Colin Gooley to a spot on the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team. Gooley, a Baldwinsville native, took up the sport about 10 years ago, and he now competes internationally. For the time being, Myles will have to settle for traveling to regional tournaments with his “fan club” of family members and friends cheering him on.

James Favata says, like many non-disabled players, he wasn’t prepared for the rigors of sled hockey when he started. “There is no such thing as a natural born sled hockey player,” he says with a laugh. “This is hard! But, it’s fun. It’s a good time.”

Wright says that the biggest misconception people have about adaptive sports is that they are not as competitive as the non-adapted counterparts. Non-disabled participants quickly learn that the programs typically require use of more, or different, muscle groups.

“For example, for our basketball programs, all participants must use the chairs,” Wright explains. “Those who don’t use them all the time are surprised by the level of challenge. The modified bikes are geared very well for being used at higher speeds, and your legs don’t help you in any way – it’s upper body and core strength.”

As motivated as he is by those who have found or reconnected with an active lifestyle through Move Along’s programs, Wright says there is always more that can be done. Transportation is an issue for city residents interested in the tennis programs. And, he senses that there are many who would like to try adaptive sports that simply are not connecting with the organization.

“There are still thousands of people with mobility issues who could benefit,” he says. “The question is, how can we get the word out and reach those people? Our message is simple; come out and have some fun. Once people do, they love it.”

James Favata says as a parent, Move Along has been an amazing asset. While schools do what they can to offer students with disabilities adaptive physical education, it’s not the same as a program that is fully inclusive. “It’s really nice to know that a program like Move Along is here,” he says. “It’s a method of entry for those who want to be active.”

Founder Greg Callen wants to get everyone moving

Greg Callen knows that the challenges for those with limited mobility go far beyond the physical ones. When a fall left him paralyzed in 2005, it was the emotional trauma that hit him hardest. But four years later, Callen found his calling. He started Move Along with the mission of making physical activity and competition accessible for all. Today, Move Along, a chapter of Disabled Sports USA, connects people of all ages and abilities with the equipment they need to engage their bodies and hearts. These days, Callen is as active as ever, and his motivation is helping others reach personal goals they may have once thought lost to their physical limitations.

Family Times recently asked Callen about the inspiration behind his wide-reaching non-profit, and why his organization is so important to so many.

Were you an athlete prior to your accident?

GC: Yes, I played youth sports starting at the age of 3 with hockey. After that, I remember being involved in baseball, hockey, basketball, football, soccer, cycling and running. At the age of 29, when I was injured, I was still playing in five adult recreation leagues in various sports.

As someone in recovery from a traumatic injury themselves, why did you want to help provide access to physical competition?

GC: I am a firm believer that physical fitness promotes mental health wellness. It also helps with reduction of hospital admissions and readmissions. Fitness is critical for everyone, but very critical for those who fight mental health issues associated with trauma and recovery.

On your website, you share a bit about your own struggles with depression following your injury. Was that a factor in establishing Move Along?

GC: It was something that become more discussed with me after my trauma, and was surely something I experienced deeply. It
was surely a factor in establishing Move Along, for the opportunity to help others lessen this condition and face it with greater resources as they move on with life. It also was a personal factor in enabling me to feel I was helping myself and others overcome this challenge.

Your first adaptive program was basketball. What was the biggest challenge in bringing that program to fruition?

GC: When I started Move Along, a few individuals, maybe 5-7, were playing at a gym in Syracuse. I remember one of those individuals approaching me in a Walmart and chasing me down an aisle to ask me if I was interested in coming out to play. I said, “I am really not interested in that at this point in my life, but thanks.” Little did I know, a year later it would become a passion to lift me back into a good quality of life. I was driven to get others involved at that point, and to build off of that little program into others that could enable individuals to see opportunity to live again, and rebuild their quality of life through reintegration by athletics and recreation. It is always challenging to get individuals to come out and get engaged. That is the largest challenge; “It’s not for me, I won’t fit in, I am already injured, why would I do that?” and so on. Move Along is now here to help take that burden away and make new experiences fulfilling.

Photo provided by Move Along Inc.

Why is it so important for young people to have access to inclusive sports programs?

GC: I want our youth with different abilities to still have opportunities to play, compete and excel at sports and life just as their
peers are able to.

In you experience, how does physical activity help contribute to psychological health for those who are recovering from a spinal injury?

GC: Physical activity is surely directly connected to psychological well-being. From being involved in a structured physical therapy program for a few years after my injury, to joining (a gym), having a personal trainer and engaging in any sports I can…these are all very pivotal (for) me (as I am) still harnessing depression, anxiety and my ability to integrate socially with confidence.

Have the opportunities for inclusive competition improved since you started Move Along?

GC: There has definitely been an increase in the opportunity for adapted athletes to find competition and be part of teams/ programs. A few of our athletes are now competing at an international level, which is very rewarding for all of us who have built Move Along to this point of sustainability.

In what ways can we do better?

GC: Collaborations between health facilities to ensure they raise the awareness for those facing trauma regarding the opportunities to reintegrate in their local communities needs to be stronger. Also, schools serve as a great platform for introduction to the concept of inclusiveness. Students who attend our Inclusive Sports Education programs love it, and we hope it opens their minds to helping others, having more compassion or even seeking a career associated with recreation therapy, physical therapy, the medical field or the social work field.

FT: What is the biggest misconception the general population has about inclusive sporting activities…or recovering athletes?

GC: I think many individuals see barriers in others when they have a wheelchair or adaptive device assisting them in everyday life.  But others don’t realize that with the correct athletic equipment, these same individuals that may have an awkward gait, or use a wheelchair, are some of the most amazing athletes in the world.

How do you go about adapting the equipment?

GC: Most equipment is adapted specifically once an athlete comes out to try the sport. We use foam, straps, tape, whatever, to
ensure a high comfort level when coming out to try the equipment. If an individual is going to stay involved, we can then order customized equipment for that person.

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