A special group of people got together at Topgolf Huntsville for a celebration on Monday. Some boomed their drives and nailed the targets. Others dribbled the ball of the tee.
All of it was done with a smile.
“Today is the day everyone gets to be pro golfers,” said Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle. “This is their Masters Tournament.”
The golfers are part of the Special Populations program run by Huntsville’s Parks and Recreation Department. Nearly a year ago, at the same spot, the celebration centered around kicking off the program, which serves the physically and mentally challenged. This time, the focus was on an incredible first year of special events and weekly recreation opportunities and an eye toward what’s next.
“The first year was so amazing because we went from not having adaptive recreation to having a whole program full of activities,” Special Populations Supervisor Tia Clayton said, in between doling out hugs, handshakes and high fives to the program’s participants and family members.
To have programs like this for us to participate in, as a family, it’s just indescribable. Words can’t describe how appreciative we are.”
Just over a year ago, the program was essentially a blank piece of paper. Clayton enlisted the help of Jordan Millsap and the two designed an activity list filled with things they enjoyed. Today, the Special Populations program includes a variety of fun things to do, including swim lessons twice a week, weekly camp, and an adaptive recreation program that includes basketball. Clayton said that approximately 325 people, of all ages, have participated in one of many phases of the program.
Looking to belong
Patricia Easter, who to Huntsville moved with her husband, Bryan, and family three years ago, said she was looking for a program that fit her 21-year-old son Patrick.
“We’re a military family and we’ve traveled all over the place,” Easter said. “Our son has autism and he’s severe special needs. With him, it’s really hard to find programs as he’s gotten older. Thank goodness this program came about. Now, he loves it. As soon as the doors open, we come. We were hoping there were more programs like this, especially something he could do throughout the school year. For him not going to school, there’s really not much.”
Bryan Easter has since retired from the military. Patricia said they could have moved anywhere after his retirement but chose to plant roots in Huntsville.
“This is a beautiful area and we’ve done a lot of research,” Patricia Easter said. “We feel that this is a good area for Patrick, with special needs, to grow in. To have programs like this for us to participate in, as a family, it’s just indescribable. Words can’t describe how appreciative we are.”
That’s just one snapshot from the first year of the Special Populations program.
Clayton said the highlight of the year for her was simply seeing one of the participants jump off a diving board for the first time.
“It was so rewarding to me,” Clayton said. “It was the highlight of my year and it just happened a couple of days ago. For me, it’s just seeing them grow daily.”
Millsap said his highlights are wrapped up in a smile.
“There is nothing like that in the world,” Millsap said. “You see that you’re actually giving them a chance to feel like every other kid here in Huntsville. You love to see their smiles. To wake up and go to work and know that you’re making a difference like that, there’s no better feeling.”
A big part of the program is participation and generosity from the community.
Clayton believes it’s important to include local businesses and civic groups in providing engaging and meaningful recreation for a group of people who are overlooked a large amount of the time. Topgolf was one of the first businesses to show their support and stepped up for the second year to host a play day at MidCity.
“All the businesses say ‘No problem’, when we ask for help,” Clayton said. “They do it without hesitation. Not only the businesses but our family, neighbors, friends, UAH and A&M have all helped us find something special for everyone. Whether it’s board games, competitive sports, or recreational sports. Everybody has stepped up to show this program is special to the City of Huntsville.”
That hasn’t gone unnoticed to an appreciative Sheila Corbin, whose 9-year-old daughter, Sophia, is making huge strides during swimming lessons and also participates in other parts of the program.
“When you have a child with special needs, you don’t need anyone to tell you that they’re different,” Corbin said. “You need someone to say that she belongs. That’s something I appreciate about Huntsville. The Parks & Recreation Department is telling us that you do have a place, you do belong. And they’re willing to match what they offer to what is doable and comfortable to her. Not everybody is willing to do that.”