It’s no secret that friendships can sprout from the most unexpected places. But for volunteers at Youth Challenge, making new friends is almost a guarantee.
With locations in Westlake and Shaker Heights, this non-profit organization provides adapted sports at no cost for children with physical disabilities. Each participant, aged 3-18, is paired with a teen volunteer, aged 12 and up, who acts as a coach, mentor, and friend.
Perhaps the most popular Youth Challenge event, for volunteers and athletes alike, is goalball. Unlike other sports that adapt the games for physically impaired athletes, goalball was designed specifically for people who are blind. The game is played 3-on-3 in a court using a rubber ball with jingling bells inside.
“The object of the game is to score a goal by using an underhand roll, to roll the ball past the opposing team and into their goal,” says Youth Challenge Program Manager Mackenzie Vecchio. “The defensive team has to block the ball by using their sound, the sound of the bells in the ball. They have to block the ball from going in the goal.”
They do that by laying their bodies in the ball’s path, hoping to block it in any way possible.
“Everyone wears eyeshades to equal the level of play because there are different levels of visual impairments; some people have more vision than others, so they classify the athletes, but to make it fair during gameplay, everyone wears the eyeshades,” explains Mackenzie.
So that players can tell where they are, wire is taped to the floor like the lines on a basketball court, except that you can feel them.
The team with the highest score at the end of the game wins.
While the game was entertaining to watch, the most inspiring aspect was the friendships between participants and volunteers. Teen volunteers act as assistant coaches to the athletes and are an invaluable part of the organization.
“Generally, most of these volunteers have already helped out with goalball before because they love it and they keep coming back,” says Mackenzie.
One volunteer is Sophie, age 16, who is paired with Celia, age 14. Though they’ve been close for years, it wasn’t until their involvement with Youth Challenge that Sophie truly started to understand Celia’s life.
“We grew up together, so we already know each other pretty well, but I guess it’s getting that side of how being blind is and what kinds of things you do with that,” says Sophie. [I’m] learning more about that aspect of her life that we don’t really pay attention to all the time.”
According to Celia, her favorite part about goalball is “the competition and knowing that you’re playing with people who have the same problems as you do.”
“I’d say a lot of our volunteers start because they may have some sort of service requirement with their school, and they come here because they have to get service hours when they’re younger, but then they end up having such a good time that they end up sticking around, which is why we have a pool of over 400 teen volunteers every year,” Mackenzie says. “And, yeah, they are absolutely crucial to what we do.”
Volunteers only need to attend one training, then attend a program as a shadow. If you want to become a volunteer and are age 12 or older, sign up for an upcoming training. Trainings are two hours and provide an overview of physical disabilities and ways that teens can help others.
“I think it’s fun meeting the people [at YC],” says Sophie. “Celia is already here. She introduced me to it. But then meeting all the new people and seeing all the things they do is fun for me.”
Fun is a mutual experience at YC.
Interested in volunteering at Youth Challenge? RSVP for an upcoming training. West side trainings are at Youth Challenge at 800 Sharon Dr., Westlake, on Thu 5/9 from 6-8pm and Sat 5/11 from 10m – 12pm. East side trainings are at Hanna Perkins Center at 19910 Malvern Rd., Shaker Heights, on Thu 5/16 from 6-8pm and Sat 5/18 from 10am-12pm.