Empower Sports

This month we feature the work of Empower Sports. This organization exists to enrich the lives of athletes of diverse challenges through sports and exercise while promoting kindness, character, and tolerance.

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Narrator – Introduction

Each month, Kaulig Giving and Fox 8 will highlight people, organizations and charities making a difference in northeast Ohio. It’s time to celebrate Cleveland’s Own.

Matt Kaulig

Hi, I’m Matt Kaulig, and I’d like to introduce you to Empower Sports, a non-profit organization committed to providing sports and exercise programs for children and adults with various physical and cognitive disabilities. Let’s take a look at Empower Sports.

Matt Kaulig

Well, Tom, thanks for being with us today. It’s really great to be here with you. And I know first hand the importance that sports plays in building confidence. So, for those viewers that don’t know about you. Tell us about Empower Sports.

Tom Heines

We’re a non-profit that provides year-round sports and exercise programs for kids and adults with special needs. We’re a totally inclusive program, meaning we’ll serve kids of any age, any ability level. And our main focus is just on helping kids develop their self-esteem, make new friends, have fun and get an opportunity to play the games and sports they love.

Matt Kaulig

So how did you get started?

Tom Heines

Honestly, it was just a push in the right direction. I wish I had a cooler backstory, but when I was getting close to graduating college, I was a knucklehead and didn’t have any idea what I was going to do with my life… About that time, my dad met a really cool guy, Steve Thompson, who’s a financial advisor and works with families, with kids, with special needs. And my dad at the time had a basketball business and Steve challenged him and said, why don’t you do these camps and clinics and different things that you guys do for kids with disabilities because there aren’t enough opportunities for those kids. So Steve’s passion for the kids and my dad’s entrepreneurial, of course, we’ll do it. Spirit, he reached out to me and he’s like, hey, I just met this guy. He’s on fire for people with special needs. He wants to do something. I think you might have the right skills to make it happen. I’m going to introduce you when you graduate. I don’t know what you’re planning on doing. I didn’t know what I was planning on doing. So I met with them after I graduated college and we just started the first program has something to do. I didn’t have any ambition about building a company or doing anything beyond just one event. It was just something like, hey, these kids deserve an opportunity to play, too. Let’s put something together and see how it goes from there. It’s just the parents that have inspired us and continue to encourage us. And next thing you know, we’re seven to nine years into it.

Matt Kaulig

All right. So how many kids are in the program?

Tom Heines

So last year we had over 11 hundred total program participants. This year, I’m hoping, will serve over fifteen hundred participants through all of the programs, Eastside, Westside and then South and Medina and Summit County. So they continue to grow. We just try to do the little things right and help the kids. And from there, that’s all we can do.

Matt Kaulig

Wow. 15 hundred. I actually thought you were going to say like 30…

Tom Heines

30 kids out of 40 here today. So who already better than than what?

Matt Kaulig

Will you really? That’s amazing. All right. So how has that grown, when you started to now?

Tom Heines

A lot of people ask us that. And truthfully, it’s just been organic. It’s been word of mouth. We started with a very small program and just tried to do the little things right. Make sure the experience was good for the kids and kind of naturally word of mouth, parents talking to other parents, other providers recognizing the value of the programs that we offer. And it’s just been a steady growth from a small seed. I don’t know what would happen if we actually tried marketing on a professional level or tried to promote ourselves a little bit more. But yeah, we’re pleased and thankful for the growth that we’ve had and hope to continue to experience that in the years to come.

Matt Kaulig

Now, do you have employees or is it volunteers or how does that work?

Tom Heines

So we’ve got two other full time employees, several program managers. So people that are helping us with our different events. And then, thousands of volunteers every year. The volunteers are really what make the program special, whether it’s high school basketball teams, softball teams, corporate volunteer groups. The volunteers really bring a lot of life and character to our programs.

Matt Kaulig

So I know we’re here at the Cavaliers facilities. So it’s obviously basketball. But what other sports do you involve in Empower Sports in?

Tom Heines

So over the last couple years, we’ve added a lot. We do a lot of basketball, Year-Round, but we also do soccer and softball. We started a lacrosse program and then exercise and fitness classes as well.

Matt Kaulig

Now, even when you play basketball, are there kind of leagues they compete in or games or do you just play for fun or how does that work?

Tom Heines

So we’re on a non-competitive program. The score doesn’t really matter us. We really care about the kids building their social skills, making new friends and building their self-esteem. But the way it typically works is we’ll bring in a different volunteer group every week, whether it’s a high school team or a business group, and intermix them with our kids, because that’s where the real magic happens. Our kids get to build social skills right alongside their typically developing peers. And on the flip side, the volunteers and anyone that gets the opportunity to play with our kids are tremendously impacted by being around our kids. So we organize loosely officiated games. Today, we’ll see, you know, some of these kids play five on five basketball. And, you know, the kids that are, that need a little bit more help. We maybe don’t enforce the rules as much. And the kids that we know we can push and we can get a little bit more out of, we do try to to help them improve their skills and play the games the right way.

Matt Kaulig

And so what are the age groups?

Tom Heines

All ages? As young as four and five years old. In fact, we have a kid involved our future Star Solon program, that’s three years old, that even jumped off the page to me. I was like three is a little young for us, but all ages we have kids as young as 5 and as old as 65.

Matt Kaulig

So with Empower Sports, how have the children responded to all of these activities?

Tom Heines

The kids are incredible. They are way more a blessing to me, to our staff, to any of the volunteers that work with our programs than we could ever be to them. To see them finally get an opportunity to play and to make new friends and to just participate in something. It means a lot to us. But the kids are amazing. They inspire joy. They inspire kindness from everyone that interacts with them. And the parents too. I think the parents exemplify what it means to purely live selflessly for your kid. And we hope that in some small way, our program provides them a place where they can sit back and just watch their kid play a game, just like any other parent.

Matt Kaulig

On Fox 8 and Cleveland’s Own. We feature a charity or person or a company that are doing great things for the community. You guys are truly doing great things for the community. So how can the viewers of Fox 8 help Empower Sports?

Tom Heines

The great thing about a Empower Sports is, there are so many ways to get involved. So, if you’re a parent that has a child with special needs, is looking for a place where your kid can play and be accepted exactly as they are and loved. Please check out our website (website), find our programs. We’re constantly scheduling new events. Or, if you’re someone that is just looking to get involved in a local non-profit, whether volunteering or donating or anything else, please reach out to us. It’s truly our community and the city of Cleveland that has enabled us to grow and become bigger and better every year. So it’s the people that surround Empower Sports that make it what it is. So we’re always looking forward to meeting new athletes or new supporters.

Matt Kaulig

So what is your website?

Tom Heines

empowersports.org

Matt Kaulig

Well, awesome. And Tom, you’re doing amazing things. And I’m empowered actually just talking to you. And I’m excited to play with some of the kids. And thank you for being here. It’s great what you’re doing.

Tom Heines

Of course. Thanks!

Matt Kaulig

To learn more about how you can help, go to empowersports.org , Make it a great day!