By Hannah Lutz
Helping special needs individuals is something Michael Richerson was led to do. He started Special Needs Athletics, a nonprofit organization through West Tennessee Health Care, in the spring of 2009.
“Our overarching mission is to provide support and opportunities through various sports for individuals with special needs and their families,” Richerson said.
Richerson started out by creating a baseball team that catered to special needs individuals.
“I worked part time at the Jackson Generals and had a baseball background. I decided to start a baseball league in 2009, and since it has grown into a year-round sports program including bowling, basketball, baseball, soccer and mini golf,” he said.
Richerson started the program to give special needs kids an opportunity to play recreational activities outside of therapy. The program offers opportunities for athletes to play organized sports without the fear of ridicule or steep disadvantages.
“My favorite part of the program is when new players and families find out about the games and want to get involved and play every sport,” Richerson said.
Turner Cole, junior sports medicine major and Union University student, volunteers at the sporting games.
“They impact my life just as much as I do theirs,” Cole said. “The athletes are thrilled to be there to enjoy sports with other athletes and volunteers, no matter what the score is.”
Every player gets to play during the games; no one sits on the bench. Coaches and volunteer teammates provide on-field assistance for those who need it.
“I work with a group of men who are 17 and older,” Cole said.
This past year, an average of 120 special needs individuals and adults played in the spring- and fall-league games. Players are not limited to just the Jackson area; families from Dyersburg, Selmer, Alamo, and Henderson drove to Jackson to have their children participate in the games.
The program started with 40 baseball players in 2009. In 2010 there were 125 baseball players. This past bowling season 88 players participated.
“I enjoy watching our players mature,” Richerson said. “The kids that were hitting off the tee in baseball the first year can now hit the ball when it is pitched to them. Players that started with bumpers in bowling the first couple of weeks did not need them in the later weeks. It is neat to see how they all are very talented athletes.”
Most players participate in every sport offered. The sports are seasonal so they stick with one sport for a few weeks then transfer to a new one.
Richerson’s dream is to provide an opportunity for every person who desires one.
There is no age limit to become a player and all of the sports are free. The oldest player was born in Nov. 1942 and the youngest in July 2006.
Due to the growing number of players traveling from other towns, Special Needs Athletics is looking to open another league in the Selmer-Adamsville area.
“It is almost an hour drive to come to the games in Jackson and we want to go to them,” Richerson said.
“We can also pull from Mississippi if we started one in that area,” Richerson said.
Special Needs Athletics is in the process of raising money to build a half-million-dollar, synthetic rubber baseball field at the West Tennessee Healthcare Sportsplex. Land was donated from the City of Jackson; all that is left to do is raise funds to build the field.
The new field would be among the 17 baseball and softball fields in the Sportsplex.
To volunteer as a coach or helper one can sign up online by printing off forms from www.specialneedsathletics.org or signing up in-person at the game. There is a table of information at each game so players can sign up that day and still play.
The next game will be the kick-off to the five-week basketball season held on Saturday, March 19, from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m. The games will be played at the Courts of West Jackson Baptist Church.
For more information on participating or volunteering, contact Michael Richerson by email at MRicherson@specialneedsathletics.org.