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Fri, Aug 22, 2014

CAPE helps special needs athletes compete

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Rick Ryan has been coaching sports for years.

He's met many children, and a few years ago one relationship changed his life forever.

It was baseball season, and Ryan, a Murfreesboro resident, coached a special needs child. The mentally challenged child loved baseball but wasn't going to be able to compete at a higher level. Ryan wanted the child to stay involved with baseball, so he inquired as to whether there was a league for special needs children.

There wasn't much for special needs children, and that bothered Ryan, who wanted everyone to have the opportunity to compete.

"There's a one-in-a-billion chance of a kid going to play major league baseball," said Ryan, a father of two. "I always teach them love of the game. That's more important to me than winning. I had no experience with special needs children."

He decided to see what he could do for special needs children in the area, and the organization Challenged Athletes Playing Equally was born.


WHAT IS CAPE?

Challenged Athletes Playing Equally started last year and become a corporation in 2006.

The nonprofit organization provides anyone with special needs — the ages of those participating ranges from 4-42 — the opportunity to play baseball, basketball, bowling, street hockey and soccer. There's a challenge baseball league in which every player hits, and there's a travel team that consists of players from the challenge league. The travel team often plays a typical little league team.

"If anyone wants to play, they can play," Ryan said. "It's a bonding experience. There are registration fees, but we have scholarships for those who need it. There are no expectations to perform well. It's about having a good time."

Last year there were 22 participants, and this year there are more than 100 in CAPE. The ultimate goal is to collect enough money from donations to build a center for CAPE.

CAPE gets participants by word of mouth and has send information to schools in Middle Tennessee.


CHANGING PROFESSIONS

Ryan quickly realized that starting CAPE would consume his time, which means he had to make a choice. He could either focus on CAPE and quit his job as a accountant, or he could keep living the same life.

He decided to run CAPE and quit his job as an accountant.

"I had an accounting business," said Ryan, who was an accountant for more than 20 years. "Boy, I'm sick of taxes. I still do taxes for CAPE. My passion's no longer taxes. These kids — I fell in love with the kids. I get antsy if I don't see them every week."


CAPE'S IMPACT

Jennifer King's son Tanner didn't have a positive experience at school. The other children laughed at him and were mean because he's autistic. Therefore, King decided to home-school her child.
Home-schooling Tanner prevented other children from harassing him, but he needed a way to meet others.

King heard about the program and took Tanner to watch a baseball game.

"Rick took him off, talked to him," said King, a paramedic with Rutherford County Ambulance Service. "Rick invited him to play for the travel league."

Tanner, a 9-year-old, also bowled, and now he can't wait to play on the weekend.

"He's more social," King said. "He has higher self-esteem."

Kelley Kuhn's 15-year-old son Jeremy also loves CAPE. Jeremy, who has Down syndrome, is a manager for the Lascassas basketball team and has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do.

Jeremy's parents decided to try CAPE, and now he plays street hockey, basketball, travel baseball and bowls.

"He loves it," Kelley Kuhn said. "He can't wait (to play)."

The program has also helped other aspects of the Kuhns' lives.

"He's made friendships," Kelley Kuhn said. "He's spent the night with other friends. It's helped with self-confidence.

"You meet people you wouldn't normally cross paths with," Kuhn said. "You get to meet a variety of people. You bond with them."

Children and teenagers aren't the only ones who can compete. Patti Jacobs' daughter Cheree is a 29-year-old who has severe brain damage. Cheree started bowling and playing hockey.

"For her morale it's been awesome," Jacobs said. "She knows she can play. She's so much happier and more confident.


THE FUTURE

The participants compete on Saturday, and there will be special events on Sunday in 2007. Ryan, who's worked with the Predators on events in the past, hopes to organize a hockey fest event.

Sign-ups for soccer are Feb. 10, while registration for baseball is March 17. Bowling sign-ups are June 9, and hockey registration is Aug. 18.

"I wanted to coach it, but I didn't want to run it," Ryan said. "I always thought there'd be someone come along who's a perfect fit. Someone came up to me and said, 'You've found him.'"

For everyone involved CAPE's been a perfect fit.

Josh Ezzell can be reached at 869-0813 or jezzell@murfreesboropost.com.

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