Fifteen-year-old Aiden Willis started participating in sports at Jacob’s Chance when he was four years old. Aiden, who suffered a stroke in the birth canal and has cerebral palsy, would see the cousins in his family playing sports, and like any other child, wanted to be out there with them.
“Aiden would come and watch, but he never got to participate,” says his grandmother Ginny McGee, who thought that Aiden might not make it through infancy. “At Jacob’s Chance, he feels excitement and camaraderie. He is surrounded by many kids like him, and he gets to be just one of the team.”
The inclusive atmosphere is one that energizes Aiden and others who participate in sports and social activities through Jacob’s Chance.
“They always used to be singled out. Now these kids are talking about how much they look forward to social events like pizza parties. All of the opportunities they have had to hang out with friends, they have made here,” says McGee. “Jacob’s Chance serves the whole spectrum of disabilities, but no one sees themselves or others differently.”
Jacob’s Chance helps individuals ages five to thirty-five with developmental, intellectual, and/or physical disabilities build confidence through inclusive programs that promote personal development and positive relationships.
When she founded the organization in 2013, Kate Mardigian wanted to make sure kids and young adults, regardless of their disabilities, would be able to enjoy the same opportunities others have. As Kate was leaving the baseball field with her own children, she observed parents on another field assisting their children who had disabilities practicing baseball. She was struck by the fact that she could sit in the bleachers and watch her children play baseball, but parents of children with disabilities didn’t have that privilege.
“I discovered they were having trouble getting volunteers to assist the athletes on the ball field. I started reaching out to senior baseball teams, and the word got out. Shortly after that, we had volunteers on the field, which enabled the parents to sit and watch their children play baseball,” says Kate, who is the executive director of Jacob’s Chance.
The organization is named after Jacob Leonard, who passed away from his disability. Jacob’s mom, Terri Retzke, is a friend of Kate’s, and when Jacob was young, it was difficult for Terri to find things for Jacob to do. “He only did backyard sports,” explains Kate. “After getting to know this family and seeing other parents on the baseball field that day, my path became clear.”
Jacob’s Chance offers individuals inclusion in a variety of sports and activities. The program includes art, music, culinary arts, fitness, STEM, and creative writing. Adventures with Jacob’s Chance feature fishing, rock wall climbing, and white-water rafting.
The Teen Scene is a social group for teens ages thirteen through high school led by the Teen Board, a group of students from area high schools. This group plans teen social events for their peers. The students on the Teen Board also get a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to run a nonprofit. After participating teens age out of the Teen Scene, there’s the Hangout, a social group for young adults up to age thirty-five.
Another off-shoot of Jacob’s Chance, River City Buddy Ball, offers year-round athletics that include basketball, baseball, flag football, tennis, soccer, and Taekwondo. Jacob’s Chance also offers summer camps and a fitness program called Inclusive Fitness and Health in conjunction with VCU Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences.
Heather White, who is twenty-nine, has been involved with the organization since it started. “It gives her the chance to interact with other kids like her,” says her mom Linda Akers. “I’m so excited they extended to young adults. She [Heather] doesn’t have a lot of friends, but she loves the Jacob’s Chance parties and dances.”
Everyone at Jacob’s Chance is invested in seeing participants thrive and feel like they belong.
“We are committed to helping families focus on their child’s ability, not their disability,” says Kate.
Photography: Mandy Lawrence