NEW PALESTINE — With sweat rolling down his face, Ridley Mitchison wrapped his tiny arms around a large football pad and ran smack into Brady Walden, a young man more than three times his size.
Walden, a New Palestine High School senior wide receiver, peddled backward upon impact, smiling wider with every step.
On Tuesday morning, members of the New Palestine High School football team welcomed a group of students from Camp Ability — an Easter Seals Crossroads program for children with disabilities. The Dragons players set up interactive football stations, allowing the campers to try their hand at some of the drills athletes put themselves through daily, all while the team cheered them on.
“This is a blast,” Walden said. “Being able to connect with these kids is really special.”
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Camp Ability programming is built with children in mind, especially those whose needs might preclude them from attending a traditional summer camp. Activities are designed around things the children enjoy, while providing support staff for those who need extra attention.
Tuesday’s experiences on the football field highlighted one of the camp’s biggest goals — to get kids out and encourage them to interact with others in an environment where they feel encouraged to be themselves.
“We’re all about inclusion,” said Scott Fogo, Easter Seals Crossroads clinical services vice president.
The Dragons welcoming the kids to their practice facilities, even for just a few hours, allowed the campers an opportunity to just be children, unconcerned that their special needs might keep them from actively participating in a sport, Fogo said.
“Any opportunity to have our kids in the community and interacting is what we’re looking for,” Fogo said.
Principal Keith Fessler heard about the program a few months ago and approached New Palestine head football coach Kyle Ralph to talk about the possibility of welcoming the campers.
The two agreed having the Dragons host an event for Camp Ability was something the football players would be enthusiastic about.
“Our football team is a great representation of our student body as a whole,” Fessler said. “They just take opportunities like these and latch on and do a heck of a job with them.”
Ralph, who encourages his players to step up and contribute to the community outside of football, hoped his players got as much from of the visit as the campers did.
Ralph said his sports program is about more than building great athletes; it’s about creating better people through each experience — on and off the field.
Having students who enjoy helping others makes his job easier, Ralph added.
The players spent several hours prior to conducting the event learning how to be generous hosts for students with special needs. Hosting Camp Ability students was right up the players’ alley, they said.
The athletes recognized that simple tasks — helping campers catch a ball or run the length of the field — could build confidence in those who struggle, they said.
“It’s just good to give back to the people who are not fortunate enough to get to play football,” New Palestine senior quarterback Gunner Large said. “We’re blessed to be able to play, and it’s good to give them a glimpse of that.”
Walden was looking forward to the activities and getting a chance to make some new friends, he said.
Assistant football coach Matt Hayden, who has cerebral palsy, said showing young children who are challenged that they do fit in can make a huge difference in their lives.
“It’s all about the support,” Hayden said. “It’s important for our kids to see other kids who are different from them and learn how to encourage and work with them.”
Fogo loves the feeling the campers have when they leave an interactive event.
“It’s what we all want in life, to have those special connections,” Fogo said.