WEST HARTFORD - Children and teens who take part in the Hospital for Special Careâ€™s Ivan Lendl Adaptive Sports Camp were treated to a visit by the tennis legend himself on Wednesday.
The camp, now in its 27th year, is a weeklong, free day camp on the University of Saint Joseph campus for those ages 6 to 19 living with physical disabilities. This yearâ€™s turnout was a record high with 49 registered campers from all over New England and New York.
â€śItâ€™s nice seeing the same kids over and over,â€ť said Lendl. â€śAnd seeing the kids or people who were kids here becoming volunteers or counselors and help with the younger kids and they give back that way. Thatâ€™s the best thing about it.â€ť
Lendl spent time with the kids during their lunch hour, posing for pictures and signing autographs.
It all started in 1990, when Janeace Slifkaâ€™s son John - who was born with spina bifida - wanted to play tennis. There werenâ€™t any sports camps on the East Coast, the only ones were out in California.
Through a number of connections, Slifka was able to put together what was then just a wheelchair tennis campus but has since grown into much more.
â€śOver time it was recognized (it was) not just tennis that kids with disabilities couldnâ€™t play, but (that the camp was an) opportunity to provide instruction and introduction to any sport,â€ť Adaptive Sports and Community Program Manager for Hospital for Special Care Janet Connolly said.
Swimming, seated yoga, golf, tennis, basketball, volleyball, soccer and track and field are a few of the activities that kids can pick and choose to participate in.
â€śCamp isnâ€™t just about teaching those sports skills, but itâ€™s the life skills too. Itâ€™s identity and empowerment,â€ť Connolly said.
Coaching and instruction in sports are provided by experienced program specialists, mentors, volunteers and adult athletes living with physical disabilities.
Connolly said that some of the coaching staff is made up of Paralympics level coaches and athletes who were successful in their sport and serve as role models for the campers.
It is the only camp of its kind in the northeast region with many of the campers returning each year, although Connolly said this year welcomed 14 new campers.
â€śI think one of the most exciting things is seeing kids owning who they are and being able to connect with peersâ€¦someone who is more like them than not like them and they now have new friendships,â€ť Connolly said.
Fourteen-year-olds Natalia Jeblonski of New Britain and Maggie Fusco of Southington are veterans of the camp. Jeblonski said this was her fourth year attending, and Fusco said it has been at least seven years, â€śbut probably more.â€ť
Both of them said the best part about camp is getting to hang out with friends and play all the different kinds of sports. They each said tennis is their favorite to play, and they both are part of the track and field team at Hospital for Special Careâ€™s Adaptive Sports Program.
This morning, Will Reeves of ESPN, and son of Christopher Reeves, will stop by the camp.
â€śWhatâ€™s nice is they (the campers) come forever until they canâ€™t anymore. It does the heart good,â€ť Slifka said.
Angie DeRosa can be reached at 860-801-5063 or firstname.lastname@example.org