The Brock Niagara Penguins is the only sports club of its kind in the Niagara, Ontario region that enables disabled youth and adults to come together and achieve active, healthy living. Penguins offers three programs for para-athletes: swimming, a wheelchair basketball team, and bocce ball.
“People with disabilities tend to have more sedentary time,” noted Karen Natho, director and founder of the Penguins. “So it’s even more important for them to be involved in sport and recreational opportunities—not only because of the health benefits of being active, but because of the psychological and social benefits as well.”
The organization’s innovative swim program, located at Brock University, enables young people with disabilities to swim, joining the school’s usual mix of family lessons and swim teams. Families have been extremely enthusiastic about having one place where their disabled children and non-disabled siblings can be physically active together, Natho said.
This setup makes active living more accessible for disabled youth, and enables them to continue participating in sport alongside their peers. “We revolve around one main concept,” Natho said.
“If you set up the right environment with the right supports, and get rid of as many barriers as you can, you’re going to have an environment where people with disabilities are going to be successful.”
In eight years, Brock Niagara Penguins has grown from a small swim program to offering wheelchair basketball and boccia ball, a precision ball sport similar to bocce, and related to bowling and pétanque, that allows athletes of nearly all disability levels to participate. Penguins is now the largest and most successful para-sport club in the Niagara region, according to Natho, and athletes are seeing benefits.
“Wheelchair basketball gave me the drive to lose 75 pounds and gain a substantial amount of muscle,” said James Davis, a para-athlete with cerebral palsy. “It kept me focused to do some source of physical activity every day. Being part of the Brock Niagara Penguins has helped me gain confidence as an athlete, and has helped me grow as a person.”
The Penguins’ wheelchair basketball team now has 18 players, and the team competes regularly in regional tournaments. Players range in age from 8 to 36. “We don’t separate players into junior or senior teams, because we’re really about mentoring,” Natho said.
Mentors help younger players learn the ropes and overcome barriers during practice. They also develop leadership skills.
James Davis has become the Penguins’ head coach—something surprisingly exceptional in the parasport world, where few coaches have disabilities themselves. “I have had the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Penguins Club about my experiences and successes, hoping to motivate others to get involved in a sport they enjoy,” he said.
The fact that Brock Niagara Penguins runs on the efforts of volunteers—even Natho is a volunteer—is a testament to the Niagara community’s enthusiasm for the program. Continuing outreach and fundraising remain key challenges, but support from local community members and organizations like Brock University and the Niagara Children’s Centre, as well as grants from Canadian Tire Jumpstart, the Ronald McDonald Foundation, and United Way, have helped to ensure access to facilities and funds for lifeguards, sport-based wheelchairs, and transportation costs.
“We just want everyone to have the chance to experience the joy of sport,” Natho said. “So we’re continuing to try and expand those opportunities as much as we can.”
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