Hoop dreams: New wheelchairs help youth team prep for competition

December 4, 2018  //  FOUND IN: News,

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Next month, Michigan Medicine’s first-ever competitive youth sports team will be hitting the road for its inaugural tournament.

The Michigan Rollverines — a wheelchair basketball team run by the University of Michigan Adaptive and Inclusive Sports Experience (UMAISE) — will be traveling to Grand Rapids, Michigan to take on other programs from around the region.

They’ll be doing so in brand-new sports wheelchairs, which were presented to the players last month at a practice that had both kids and parents feeling emotional.

The unveiling was a milestone more than a year in the making — and one that couldn’t have happened without the commitment of faculty, staff, volunteers and even undergraduate students at U-M.

Hitting the hardwood

The Rollverines were created after two wheelchair basketball clinics were held at Peace Lutheran Church in Ann Arbor in late 2017.

“The clinics were designed to gauge interest in the community and expose children to basketball for the first time,” said Meghan Veiga, program coordinator and an assistant coach for the team. “We wanted to provide an outlet for children with disabilities to get exercise and meet friends who have similar interests and life experiences.”

Weekly practices began in January, with the help of Veiga, a Michigan Medicine recreational therapist; head coach Daniel Ellman, a Michigan Medicine communication specialist; and volunteer coach Mark Bacon, a senior manager at U-M in Management Information Systems.

“We started with about five or six regular participants,” Veiga said. “Since then, we’ve grown to around 15 kids, aged from four to 14, and we come together every week to improve skills and to help our kids learn how to work together and have fun as a team.”

Buckets of support

Soon after the program got off the ground, U-M undergraduates pledged their support through Dance Marathon, a student-run nonprofit that benefits pediatric rehabilitation programs around the area.  Not only did Dance Marathon participants begin volunteering at practices, but some of the funds raised by the group were earmarked for the Rollverines program.

In the end, $30,000 was pledged to go toward purchasing new wheelchairs and equipment for the players to use.

“We began our program by borrowing wheelchairs that were too big for our kids,” Veiga said. “While we were grateful to have something to get us off the ground, we’ve always had the goal of providing youth-sized chairs that would help our players excel.”

UMAISE partnered with the company Numotion, who delivered the chairs to Ann Arbor last month.

“To see the kids’ reactions when they got into the gym and saw a chair with their name on it was really special. You could feel how excited they were and that gives us the energy to continue growing our program as we move forward,” Veiga said.

“Now that they have equipment that fits them, they’re doing things that they, and their families, may have never thought possible. It’s going to open up a lot of doors for everyone.”

Ready to roll

Much of the past year has been focused on building skills, but that will begin changing shortly.

On Dec. 15, the Rollverines will face a team from Grand Rapids’ Mary Free Bed Hospital during a scrimmage in Dexter. They will then play in their first tournament a few weeks later.

“Playing competitive games will be eye-opening for a lot of our kids,” Veiga said. “Many of our players watch their able-bodied siblings and friends playing competitive sports that they’re not able to be fully included in. This changes all of that.

“It feels like all of the hard work over the past year is starting to pay off and we can’t wait to see where the program goes from here.”

Check out photos from the wheelchair unveiling and recent practices in the photo gallery above. And if you’d like to support the Rollverines and help them offset travel and other expenses, click here. Finally, if you know of a child interested in playing wheelchair basketball, please contact Veiga at mveiga@med.umich.edu.