A couple of weeks after the conclusion of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, the Paralympic Games take the stage, where the world’s best athletes with physical and visual disabilities compete against each other for the gold. This year, at least one of the athletes representing the United States also competes for Team GLASA, the local team from the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association, headquartered out of the Gorton Community Center in Lake Forest.
“When I moved to the area, I was frustrated because there weren’t opportunities for kids and adults with physical or visual disabilities to partake in sports,” says Cindy Housner, Executive Director and founder of GLASA. “It was needed. I thought that wasn’t very fair.”
A spirit of fairness and equality has been the beating heart of GLASA since Cindy first began it in 1999. Their motto, “Let no one sit on the sidelines,” says it all. Most of the sports offered hardly need to be adapted at all to accommodate the athletes with physical impairments, such as amputation, cerebral palsy, or paralysis, or visual impairments who train with Team GLASA. They have programs like swimming, archery, kayaking, tennis, table tennis, horsemanship, and weightlifting. Then there are the sports that simply require a little specialized equipment for the athlete, like wheelchair basketball, handcycling, and sled hockey. There are also sports that have been created to the specific skill sets of the athletes, like goalball, a game for the visually impaired, where players try to roll a ball with bells in it across a court into their opponent’s goal without it being blocked. They have programs for all ages, from the junior division to adults, and that range of accessibility was really put to the test in the middle of last June when they hosted both the Great Lakes Regional Games for junior athletes, which was the qualifying event for the 2012 National Junior Disability Championships, and the Adult National Championships all on the same weekend. They used the facilities at Lake Forest High School for the swimming, boccia, weightlifting, and table tennis events, and Deerfield High School for the track and field and archery events.
“We had around 230 athletes, including more than 40 injured veterans,” says Cindy. “It went really well. It’s such a learning experience for parents, for athletes, for coaches, because you have developmental athletes and then competitors that are going on to the Paralympic Trials.”
Big events like that are great for the competitive aspects of adaptive sports, but the real life-changing work happens year-round. In addition to the daily training and sporting events for athletes of all skill levels, from beginners to pros, they also host several special programs that introduce people to their organization and get the community involved. Camp Trek Adaptive Sports Camp is a weeklong summer camp held in Libertyville for children with physical or visual disabilities. They hold clinics with professionals and coaches in the adaptive sports world. They have an active outreach and education program for injured military veterans and their families. The 5K Twilight Run, an annual event at the beginning of September in which anyone can participate, kicks off and ends at the Gorton Community Center, where there’s a celebratory barbeque and music. GoGirlGo is a girls-only program involving sports and age-appropriate education on nutrition, self-esteem, and goal setting, which also includes fun side trips, like the nail salon. They also have a teen night with pizza and a trip to a bowling alley.
“I love sports and I love what they do for kids,” says Cherie Hrusovsky, Development Coordinator for GLASA. “They give them structure, they build their self esteem—to me that’s the most important, building that self-esteem and giving them camaraderie. It’s hard enough to find your way in high school, but if you have a disability, it can be hard for them socially. With us, they can get into a group of people that are similar to them and then they have the older kids as mentors.”
Some of the more equipment-heavy sports can be quite expensive, which is why GLASA is always on the lookout for donations and volunteers to help the cause. Their programs are open to anyone, and they work regularly with people from all over northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin.
For more information on GLASA, call 847-283-0908, or visit glasa.org.