BELLVILLE -- Ten-year-old Domenic Lupo ambled in wide loops, seemingly unaware of everything but the bright orange basketball he was dribbling.
His eyes locked on the ball, he dribbled methodically, sending a consistent echo throughout the church gym. A teenage volunteer followed close beside him, making sure his singular focus didn’t cause him to run into any of the other kids.
This was how Domenic spent the first half of basketball camp. His peers circled from station to station, but nobody seemed to mind that he preferred to dribble solo.
Finally, one of the coaches got his attention and managed to guide him towards a hoop. She instructed him to dribble towards the basket, then stop at a row of miniature cones.
“Now shoot!” she urged.
Domenic hurled the ball upward, not paying much attention to whether or not it landed inside the hoop. He’d gotten the chance to shoot a basketball, and that was what mattered.
Domenic is one of the 36 children enrolled in the first Tiffany Hildebrand Unstoppables Basketball Camp, a free, 8-week program for children with disabilities at New Life Church of Christ in Bellville. The camp is named in honor of the late Tiffany Hildebrand, whose memorial contribution donations were split between The Unstoppables League and Special Olympics.
“It makes my heart feel good. I know she’d enjoy this,” said Tiffany’s husband, Rick, who is serving as a volunteer coach. “(The kids) are more capable than people think.”
The camp is hosted by The Unstoppables League, which got its start as a baseball program for special needs children.
“We had so much success with baseball that we wanted to try this,” said Lindsay Roberts, who founded The Unstoppables League with her wife Laura. “A lot of them can’t get outside. There’s nothing to do in the winter.”
While technically a division of the Clear Fork Youth League, The Unstoppables is open to children with special needs from any area who are between the age of 5 and 18. Families came to the camp from all over, from Mansfield to Loudonville and West Salem.
“There’s not a lot of programs like this,” said Lisa Knuckles, who drove her grandson from Mount Vernon to the camp.
Emmett, 9, has been diagnosed with autism and also struggles with anxiety.
“It took us 10 minutes to get him in the first time,” Knuckles said. “Now he loves it.”
The camp is led by Monica Ellis, an intervention specialist and longtime basketball coach. According to Ellis, playing sports can help children with special needs develop both their gross motor and fine motor skills, as well as build their confidence and help them make friends.
Playing with other children of different abilities also gives them a sense of community.
“They understand each other. They get that feeling of, ‘You’re like me.’ They're not the one that's at the end of the bench,” Ellis said.
Roberts agreed, saying the friendships that flourish through the program might be the most important part.
“We didn’t start it because we all wanted our kids to play baseball. They get teamwork, they get discipline, they get belonging,” she said.
Being a part of a team is a big deal to Peyton Born.
The 11-year-old has Smith Magenis syndrome, a rare developmental disorder. The youngest of four, she’s been watching her older siblings play basketball, softball and soccer from the stands for years.
Her first time being on a sports team came when she joined The Unstoppables baseball team two years ago.
“Peyton doesn’t really get to be involved in a lot of typical kid type things,” said her mother, Tara Born. “Now she's able to say that she gets to have practice and games and team parties.
“Peyton is very, very social, so being able to come here and be with all of her friends means the world to her.”
For some, the Unstoppables League also functions as a “parent support group” of sorts.
Parenting a child with special needs can be isolating at times. Parents with typically functioning children can try to sympathize, but often can’t relate to the challenges.
“We don’t get these kind of breaks to talk to adults, other than doctors, therapists and teachers at school,” Born said. “It’s nice to be able to talk to another parent who gets it.”
Volunteer “buddies” are assigned to each child, so the adults that brought them can relax and watch them play.
“We’ve never really had the typical life,” said Amber Hedrick, who has a son with autism and a daughter who is legally blind. “When we come here, it’s like a taste. Sitting on the sidelines, you never get to do that.”
“They have fun. When we leave here, it’s nothing but smiles. We couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Hedrick’s 10-year-old daughter, Remington, ran up to her and announced “I shot TEN baskets!”
After a high-five and a “Good job!” Remington dashed away and fell back into the shooting line. Just minutes later, she was back.