The year-round Acworth Horizon League is a growing program dedicated to providing inclusive and adaptive sports for people with special needs. A part of the Acworth Parks and Recreation Department, the league offers its no-cost service to athletes ages 5 and older.
As the program expands, its leaders and volunteers make a continuous effort to introduce new sports and activities for the athletes. The league currently has coaches for baseball, kickball, lacrosse, hockey, basketball, pickleball and yoga and offers unique pop-up events like the Minute to Win It Valentine’s Day party, pinball at Portal Pinball and groovy-themed bingo.
In just the past few months, the program has featured a wide range of activities — winter kickball, pinball, fishing, baseball, bingo, “Family Feud” and last month’s Horizon League Ability Gala, which raised more than $70,000 to ensure the athletes can continue participating in these accommodating programs.
Steve Prather, vice president of the city’s Special-Needs Development Group, said it is rewarding to see the children happy and living their lives as normally as possible. “Having a special-needs child myself, that aspect is very important to me,” he said. “The Horizon League Field is inside of a regular field, so she always had a sister that was playing right next to her. Inclusivity is the most important thing.”
The city is focused heavily on ensuring everyone feels valued, and Prather said there is adaptable equipment integrated with standard equipment at Cauble Park and the Acworth Sports Complex. Horizon Field, which is part of the complex, is designed to accommodate those with disabilities and includes cushioned turf, wheelchair-accessible dugouts, ramps and adaptable swing sets.
Credited with expanding the Horizon League programs, Lauren Ham is the special populations coordinator, focusing specifically on the special-needs area. She works to establish a safe, comfortable environment for the athletes under her care.
Initially, Ham was in charge of the senior and special-needs populations, but the Horizon League found another team member to work with the seniors. This redirection lets Ham invest all her time into one group, allowing the special-needs programs to expand greatly in the last year.
Horizon League’s community involvement makes the program incredibly special. The volunteers who participate come from local high schools, churches and nonprofit organizations, and the program’s “buddy” system further enhances community bonding. In each sport, an athlete is assigned a buddy partner to help him or her take part in the activity. These volunteers are a vital part of continuing to build the program.
Coach Casey Weatherford has dedicated the last 10 years of his life to volunteering with the children. He started out buddying and coaching baseball, then decided he wanted to become as involved as possible in the program. Now, he can have up to 300 athletes show up for baseball every week, he said.
“Every volunteer that comes here gets just as much out of it as the athletes,” he said. “They come out here and see the bigger picture of what we do and why this is so needed in our community.”
Accessible programs are a much-needed and crucial element of a community. Weatherford said when these children grow up, there is nothing available to make the special-needs population feel included. But the idea of kids with special needs wanting to be included and to do the same activities as other kids is an important part of the Horizon League. “Boy or Girl Scouts don’t offer anything for special-needs people,” Weatherford said. “To build a program that adapts to certain disabilities is not going to happen at these other places.”
Volunteers who spend time with these children say the experiences have taught them gratitude. Weatherford said he believes disabled people teach lessons and help others see the bigger picture in life. Referring to the players as his “angels,” he said the kids have taught him to appreciate the things he normally took for granted on a daily basis.
That’s the reason Weatherford and other volunteers make it their goal to help these children do the same things as everyone else and to bring them outside their comfort zone. He said he’s never seen one kid hate any of the activities. He’s seen only pure joy.
Besides coaching his players, Weatherford also strives to get to know them on a personal level. He said he visits his athletes at work and follows them on social media. “I love to hear their stories,” he said. “I love to know what they like to do, their jobs, their hobbies and if they have any pets.”
Ham and Weatherford agree that seeing the children smile shows them their hard work has paid off. “When you see any one of these kids smile when they hit the ball, that’s the payment I receive,” Weatherford said.
Ham credits the community for enabling this amazing program to grow. “The opportunities are endless, and the Horizon League wouldn’t serve over 500 athletes a year without the support of our wonderful community, volunteers and coaches,” she said.
– Claire Becknell is a third-year journalism and emerging media student at Kennesaw State University. She believes local media is important in modern journalism and is grateful to write for Aroundabout Local Media.
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