Volunteer-Run Sports Program Helps Those With Intellectual Disabilities Be 'Champions'
Kansas was recently ranked one of the top states in the country for number of people who do volunteer work. All this week, the KMUW News team is looking at some local volunteers who are making a difference here in Wichita.
The Air Capital Flyers Special Olympics program is completely operated by volunteers from top to bottom; no one is paid. The local nonprofit exists to help enrich the lives of individuals with intellectual disabilities through competitive sports.
Chris Culp has been volunteering as a coach for the Air Capital Flyers Special Olympics program for six years. Culp says he is someone who has always believed in giving back "time, treasure and talents" to those who are less fortunate.
“So I decided to get off the bench and come out. And it was perfect fit,” Culp says of his decision to volunteer.
But not only was it a perfect fit for him, becoming part of the Air Capital Flyers has proven to be a draw for his entire family, including his wife, Wendy, and stepsons James and Jacob Hersh.
“The thing that’s so amazing to me is sport is so transcendent,” Culp says.
Through his years as a coach with Air Capital Flyers, Culp says he’s come to learn about the home lives of his athletes. And while his observation doesn’t apply to everyone, he says some of their home situations are eye-opening.
“It will break your heart so see some the lives these people live outside of here,” Culp says. “If this is the one hour a week, and then at games and stuff, that they get to get away from that part of their life, that’s the part that is just such a draw to me. And that’s the part that I’m trying to impress on my step-kids is that you just don’t know what they go home to.”
On top of that, Culp says volunteering has broadened his understanding of the Special Olympics community.
“Everyone kind of has a vision of Special Olympics when they walk in,” he says. “But once you’re here, you realize that this is a very diverse community.”
Executive director Glenn Jones started the Air Capital Flyers in 2002. There are now 147 athletes in the organization; they range in skill level and age, but everyone has a place.
“I was the sports director for the Wichita Independents. At the time, they were the largest Special Olympics team in the state of Kansas,” Jones says. “I was having parents call me and say ‘I don’t want to be a number.’”
It was those phone calls that prompted Jones to form the Flyers, a new team to bring in new athletes.
“We hope to keep it as individual as possible. Everybody is on a team, but we’re one big team,” he explains. “It’s a ‘one big family’ type approach.”
That approach has paid off: The team is now the biggest in the state. Jones estimates there are close to 50 volunteers who keep the Flyers up and running.
“Without them, we wouldn’t exist,” Jones says. “From [my position as] the director all the way down to fundraising to assistant coaches, score tables…we’re 100 percent volunteers.”
Charles Pike, another volunteer coach, has been helping out for 13 years, since his son (also named Charles Pike) was 13 years old.
“I had a brother who had Down syndrome,” the elder Pike says. “And he played Special Olympics. But I always thought he could do a lot better. So when it hit us twice and my son was born, I thought he could do a lot better too.”
Pike’s son is now 26 years old and is still active with the Flyers, participating in basketball, softball and track and field. Athletes also have the opportunity to compete year-round in basketball, cheerleading, power lifting, swimming, cycling, tennis, golf, soccer, bocce, volleyball and bowling.
“It’s wonderful,” Pike says of his family's experience through the years. “These boys and girls, they know they can be themselves here. And sometimes, when they go out into the ‘real world’, as I call it, people shun them because they’re different. But when they’re here, they can be champions. And that’s something.”
Follow Abigail Beckman on Twitter @AbigailKMUW.
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