Melissa Clarke-Wharff and her son, Jack, will spend time at the Waukee Family YMCA as Courage League Sports gears up this summer.
Melissa Clarke-Wharff and her son, Jack, will spend time at the Waukee Family YMCA as Courage League Sports gears up this summer.

About four years ago, Melissa Clarke-Wharff’s son, Jack, suffered multiple strokes that left him unable to walk, talk or use his arms.

Jack, who now is 12 and active though he no longer can use his right arm or hand, wanted to play sports like other kids his age, but there was no venue that offers year-round programs for children with special needs. That need sparked the idea for Courage League Sports, a nonprofit organization that will offer adaptive sports and fitness programs for kids with disabilities.

“We have some great programs here,” Clarke-Wharff said, “but we don’t have something like a Y for these kids to be able to use, because my son just wants to play sports. He gets very frustrated by the fact that he can’t go full-speed like his brother.”

Now registered as an Iowa nonprofit organization, Courage League Sports has formed a board of directors and plans to begin offering activities at the Waukee Family YMCA on Saturdays beginning May 2. One-week summer camps will also be offered at the Valley Community Center in West Des Moines. The organization expects to open a permanent facility in Urbandale by late summer.

With a slogan of “every child deserves to play,” Courage League Sports will provide adaptive sports programs appropriate to a range of disability levels, including physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities, Clarke-Wharff said. Sports offered will include basketball, flag football, soccer, floor hockey and volleyball. The organization will also offer a running club and provide a fitness room with adaptive exercise equipment.

That’s something a lot of these kids don’t have access to,” she said. “We’ll also have exercise programming, adaptive Pilates and yoga. We have certified instructors who are going to volunteer their time to offer these programs.”

Courage League Sports plans to offer programs for preschoolers and toddlers as well. The group also hopes to work with Greater Des Moines school districts to offer adaptive physical education classes either at the schools or at its Urbandale facility.

“We’re going to be very volunteer-driven,” Clarke-Wharff said. “We’re going to reach out to the high schools and their volunteer programs. Our hope is to have either the parents of these kids or volunteers to be the coaches.”

The organization will need approximately $500,000 a year to operate, which Clarke-Wharff believes can be achieved through grants after it completes its initial fundraising campaign. It will also be supported by membership fees. A family membership will cost $40 per month, which includes access to the facility and its activities for not only the child who is affected but also for the other children in the family.

Several organizations have signed on as sponsors, including Blank Children’s Hospital, ChildServe, Hy-Vee Inc. and the JMH Foundation.

“We’re still looking for corporate and community partners to get our initial capital campaign fulfilled,” Clarke-Wharff said. “We’re going to need equipment and uniforms, and volunteers.”