Isaiah Pridgen, a second-grader from Northeast Washington, D.C., has chubby cheeks and an inquisitive approach to all conversations. On a cloudless afternoon last fall, he waited excitedly in line at Simple Changes Therapeutic Riding Center in Northern Virginia for his turn to mount a horse. It wasn’t his first time — to hear him tell it, as he constantly pushes his thick-framed, black sports glasses back up his nose, he’s practically an old ranch hand.
Isaiah was one of many children at the Lorton, Va., center that day participating in an “Extreme Recess” event hosted by Dreams for Kids DC. The nonprofit, whose original Chicago chapter was founded by lawyer Tom Tuohy in 1989, organizes adaptive sports events — like horseback riding, golfing or water skiing — for low-income children and for those with developmental and physical disabilities. The program isn’t designed to make athletes out of the kids, but rather to give them an opportunity to interact with their peers and mentors in a safe social setting, without having to fear being stigmatized, excluded or isolated.
“A lot of participants don’t feel like they’re always able to connect with other people sometimes, whether it’s because they’re in different classes at school or how they’re raised,” says Glenda Fu, executive director of Dreams for Kids DC, and the organization’s only full-time staff member. “But it’s great to see kids who are more shy or antisocial bond with one of our volunteers and have smiles on their faces.”
The nonprofit’s ultimate goal is to empower at-risk children, particularly those with disabilities like Down syndrome or multiple sclerosis, who often don’t have access to the same physical and social activities as other kids. Yet everyone has the same desire to make friends, participate in sports or other pastimes, and feel like they’re part of a group — experiences that are known to contribute to children’s overall health and well-being. Dreams for Kids DC’s events are largely centered on physical activities that are geared toward increasing children’s coordination and strength, fostering a sense of personal accomplishment and, most important, improving their self-esteem.
“One of the most universal things about sports is that regardless of whether you have special needs or not, you feel that thrill of being on the ice or throwing a football. I think that’s why these children love it,” says Fu.
It’s Isaiah’s turn to ride. Yogi, a large brown horse, trots to the mounting area and a pair of volunteers help the young boy into the saddle. With two volunteers by his side and his mother, Alysia, watching from beyond a wooden fence, Isaiah sits as Yogi moves forward. But a few paces in, Isaiah starts to panic: “Mom! Mom! I don’t want to ride him! I don’t want to!” he screams.
Yogi stops moving and remains calm. Alysia walks to her son and soothes him. The group soon starts moving again, slowly, and circles the pasture. Isaiah, appearing quite pleased, dismounts and runs to the back of the line. He looks up at his mom and asks, “Can I ride him again? Please?”
Isaiah and his family have been attending Dreams for Kids DC’s Extreme Recess events for three years. Like many of the 1,200 families served annually by the nonprofit, Isaiah’s family lives in a low-income area of the city and Isaiah was diagnosed with autism at age 3. Over the years, Isaiah has skated with the Washington Capitals, thrown passes with the Redskins and shot hoops with the Mystics. He’s learned how to make pizza and to downhill ski. Alysia, who works as a help-desk analyst, says none of this would have been possible for her son without the help of Dreams for Kids DC.
There are many organized athletic programs for children with disabilities, such as the Special Olympics, the American Association of Adapted Sports Programs and the Inclusive Fitness Coalition, which are becoming increasingly popular at schools and in neighborhoods across the country. Like Dreams for Kids, these programs aim to encourage friendship, fair play and physical fitness, but the difference is that they require a sustained commitment from participants. Dreams for Kids’ activities, by contrast, are discrete events — families can attend as many or as few as they are able. The program is also targeted to underserved neighborhoods, and it’s free.
For the kids who participate, a single event can be life-changing. When a girl with autism, who has trouble communicating, scores her first goal against D.C. United superstar Perry Kitchen, or a boy whose family lives on a tight budget learns how to glide across a lake on water skis, it can make a tremendous difference in their development. “At my first Extreme Recess, golfing, there was a boy who needed a walker. When he got to the tee, he pushed [the walker] away and stood there by himself, golfing away,” says volunteer Heather Murfitt, a senior at Cazenovia College in upstate New York, who interned with Dreams for Kids DC in 2011. “Watching that was one of the most awesome things I’ve ever seen.”
Since then, Murfitt, who is also a multimedia artist, has donated half of the proceeds from her art shows to the organization.
The horseback riding event at Simple Changes — which also treated the 40 kids in attendance to face painting, pony painting, a tour of a fire truck and plenty of pizza — was one of 16 Extreme Recesses held by Dreams for Kids DC in 2013. “Not everything out there is geared toward a child who’s unable to do something everyone else can do,” says Tracey Murphy, whose 10-year-old daughter rode a white pony name Dixie twice that day. “This is just wonderful.”
A volunteer, Lia Winnard, 17, kept a watchful eye on Dixie for most of the afternoon, guiding the majestic animal in circles while joyful youngsters mounted and dismounted, sometimes more than once. She knows firsthand what it’s like to grow up with a disability, having battled violent seizures since childhood as a result of mild cerebral palsy. After graduating from high school, Winnard plans to attend Longwood University in Farmville, Va., where she’ll study therapeutic recreation for the treatment of people with disabilities. “So many people have helped me all these years,” she says. “I just feel like I need to give back.”