“It’s not about disability. It’s a uniqueness of your ability.”

Sharon Williams, 43, Adaptive Recreation Advocate

Sharon Williams played softball from the time she could walk.

When her Kernersville high school softball coach brought her team to the volunteer for the Special Olympics of North Carolina, her whole perspective changed.

“I remember being at the track and cheering them on. Being able to help put the medals on. Just getting to be a part of that big moment in their life was really inspirational,” Sharon says. “It really kind of opened me to see the uniqueness of everyone’s ability. It’s not a disability. It’s a uniqueness of your ability.”

Today, Sharon is Greensboro Parks and Recreation’s Adaptive and Inclusive Recreation coordinator, ensuring that people of all abilities have a chance to play. It’s a job that’s equal program planner, fundraiser, and advocate.

After high school, Sharon studied therapeutic recreation at UNC Greensboro. She worked with seniors right out of college, but discovered her real passion when she took a job with the Town of Davidson Parks and Recreation. She worked with her colleagues at neighboring parks departments in the Lake Norman area to combine resources to offer special events and new programs, like a teen council.

“It was really wonderful. We worked hand in hand. We really were one big team. It really showed me a lot about parks and reaction. The people at parks and recreation really work for the community,” she says.

Sharon took a job with Kernersville Parks and Recreation in 2010, where she helped start a summer day camp and created a variety of programs. In 2014, she took a chance to go back to her therapeutic recreation roots, running what was then called Greensboro Parks and Recreation Mainstream Resources. It provided special programs and services for individuals with disabilities.

At the time, that included Camp Joy and programs targeted toward adults. One of her first tasks was overseeing a needs assessment to determine what else the City could or should be doing, what Greensboro residents needed.

Since then the program has gotten a new name – Adaptive and Inclusive Recreation (AIR) – and has expanded to offer more sports, more programs for kids, and new community partnerships to better leverage the work that is already being done in Greensboro.

Often, it’s a comment from the community that sparks a new project.

Like Indoor Field Day – an annual event the AIR and lake staff host at local schools for children with disabilities. A teacher at the Haynes-Inman Education Center asked how her students might get to experience a day of outdoor adventure, even though some are too fragile to take a trip to one of the city’s lakes.

Parks and Recreation brought adventure to them – complete with rolling kayaks specially-designed by the lake staff.

“We use the hallways as a river. It’s pretty neat,” she says. “These were boats that were no longer in service at the lakes. It was something we had that we found a new purpose for.”

Greensboro parents wanted youth programs designed for kids with disabilities as well as more inclusive opportunities, where existing programs are adapted slightly to include children with different abilities, Sharon says.

“Parents want their child to be able to have a specialized recreational community to build those skills to go into an inclusive environment,” Sharon says. “It’s really beneficial to have both.”

In response, three years ago Parks and Recreation, partnering with the ARC of Greensboro and Proehlific Park, launched a Challenger Sports flag football and cheerleading team with a grant from the Carolina Panthers. The free program is designed for children and young adults with disabilities to work one-on-one with volunteers to practice and play flag football.

The program filled within days. The league went big, with a Friday night tailgate and a special trip to the Carolina Panthers practice stadium at the end of the season.

Parents relished the opportunity to cheer on the sidelines like other sports parents.

“It was a rewarding experience for them to be able to do that,” she says. “You don’t really know how what you are a doing can actually effect a family or what value they are getting out of it. You have to build that trust. They need to know that you care about their kid as much as you do.”

Today the City offers Challenger football, basketball, and baseball in partnership with the ARC. They’ve also built a successful adaptive golf program, run by the Gillespie Golf Course gold pros.

Adaptive golf started the same way a lot of great things in AIR get started – with an idea from a resident or a group and a little help from Parks and Recreation professionals. The program started as a request from a member of Helping Amputees Help Amputees, a local support group for people who have lost a limb.

“It’s OK to not have the same golf swing you had before. You can still have the same quality of life,” Sharon says. “You can still be a part of the community.”

Now Greensboro Parks and Recreation is a chapter of PGA HOPE, a national adaptive golf program for veterans that draws participants from across North Carolina.

The city’s new adaptive kayak launch at Lake Higgins started a similar way. Bridge II Sports, an adaptive sports organization, tipped Sharon off to a Duke Energy grant. It allows people who use a wheelchair or have stability issues to be able to kayak independently. It’s the only launch like it the county.

Sharon is quick to credit her colleagues for these projects and programs. She points out that it takes the whole staff to make them a success.

“I enjoy being able to find a way to make it happen, especially when people don’t think it’s possible,” Sharon. “That is one thing about adaptive recreation and inclusion. It’s finding a way to make it happen. It’s a way to make it happen for everyone.”

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