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Adaptive recreation programs are paying dividends

Stephen Spitz has used a wheelchair since he lost the use of his legs in a motorcycle crash 17 years ago.

He went water skiing that next summer -- and has done so once or twice a year since.

He has had success on the tennis court, too, winning the Muny open men's wheelchair singles title in 1997. And he's the player-manager for the Buffalo Chariots, a wheelchair basketball team.

So the 39-year-old Orchard Park resident brings instant credibility when talking to children and adults about adaptive recreation programs.

"Get out there and find out what's going on," Spitz said Sunday at the New York State Recreation and Parks Society annual conference in Adam's Mark Hotel. Several area agencies sponsored the "Recreation Resources for Individuals With Disabilities" program.

Spitz was among some 350 people who attended the program, which showcased recreation options for children and adults.

He understands what it takes to muster the resolve to get into the water or to begin any recreational activity. People question their abilities and rely on others for assistance, he said.

"Whatever level you're looking for, opportunity is out there," he added.

And they were on display Sunday: Booths offered information about horseback riding, ice skating, sailing, canoeing, kayaking and sled hockey, among others.

Cheryl Dearlove and her son, Sean, 17, were among those checking out the displays.

"He's getting older and wants to do stuff on his own," Dearlove said.

The Kenmore East student showed the positive attitude that program coordinators like to see.

"I can do it," Sean said, as he looked over a one-person sailboat.

"I want to get in and sail away," he said, jokingly. "I need a challenge."

Many people who use a wheelchair are able to drive a car, said Tom Nowak, president of Western New York Adaptive Water Sports.

"There's no reason in the world they can't have a boat that's also equally adapted," he said.

The chapter has borrowed equipment, Nowak said. But it has been raising money to buy its own boats and to cover insurance costs and slip rentals. In addition to sponsors, the nonprofit group also wants to attract more people to its program.

"We need to spread the word," Nowak said.

Those who are Sean's age should find and participate in recreational activities that they will be interested in even when they're no longer in school, said Susan Barlow, director of parent training at the Parent Network of Western New York.

Even if they favor different activities years from now, they'll need the skills to find and participate in them outside a school setting, said Barlow, whose Buffalo-based organization helps people with disabilities reach their potential by educating their parents and the professionals who serve them.

"Recreation programs help kids adjust when the school bus stops coming," she said.

Spitz knows their value.

"Being injured from a traumatic injury, it was huge when I first became disabled," he said of recreation programs. "It was about networking, socializing and learning about the disability. Now, it's about looking for more challenges and excitement."

e-mail: plakamp@buffnews.com

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