For a long time, organizations have been using athletics to service the large community of people with special needs in Western New York, especially up north.

John Maroon, a World War II veteran, was one of the pioneers, hosting a bowling league through the Cerebral Palsy Recreation Group in Niagara Falls for over 40 years.

WNY Challenger Sports is nearing 20 years of sponsoring all kinds of sports, including baseball, basketball, golf and bowling, in Lockport, Medina and now the Falls. Miracle League has done the same for youth on Grand Island.

More recently, many local high schools have adopted unified sports, allowing student-athletes with special needs to suit up alongside their classmates in basketball and bowling leagues.

Now, a church-sponsored basketball league on Grand Island is taking the unified approach and expanding it to the youth level. Upward Sports, a longtime league out of Cornerstone Church, opened its doors to players with special needs for the first time this year. So far, it’s been a smash hit.

Like unified, Upward Sports integrates players with special needs on teams with their contemporaries, rather than hosting separate leagues. The benefits have been been evident in both the returning athletes and the newcomers, said Cornerstone Sports Ministry Director Vinh Nguyen. By turning the focus of the league off of competition, Upward has created an environment that sometimes gets lost in today’s youth sports.

“Sports are supposed to be fun, especially for kids this age,” Nguyen said. “A lot of our kids are already in travel or even AAU leagues. ... (Here), they’re learning to be better people and better players, and that’s going to be helpful to them. You don’t get to choose your team in sports and in life.”

Of course, it’s tough enough to host any youth sports league. Adding special-needs athletes with over 100 other children certainly comes with its challenges. But to Nguyen, that only amplifies the reward.

In Upward’s first week this season, one player, a boy named Colin with clinical anxiety, had an attack while on the court. Nguyen helped walk him off the court and into the hallway.

“It just happened our security dog was out there, and this kid dropped down and wrapped his arms around our security dog,” Nguyen said. “I said, ‘Whenever you’re ready, we’re going to go back in.’”

Meanwhile, Nguyen coached Colin’s teammates on how best to get him involved.

“I told them, ‘Just use his name. I need you to call his name out when you pass to him,’” Nguyen said.

The first pass hit Colin in the chest and bounced away. On the very next play, a boy named Matt yelled for Colin and connected with a pass.

“Colin turns to the basket, and it was almost like time stood still,” Nguyen said. “He puts it up, it hits the backboard and goes in. The whole crowd goes nuts, both sides.

“All of the sudden he’s running up the court, part of this team. His whole demeanor just changes.”

Nguyen moved to the Isle from southern Illinois in 2017. He’s currently studying for his doctorate in Greek linguistics and New Testament theology at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario.

His commitment to ministry brought him to Cornerstone Church, and his commitment to his family brought this new version of Upward Sports. Nguyen’s 5-year-old daughter, Alli, has Down syndrome.

As Nguyen began to engage with the special needs community, he realized the opportunity in front of him.

“We were pretty shocked how many kids with, not only Down syndrome, but also autistic and other ranges of disabilities, there are in Western New York,” he said. “It’s one of the most populated places in the country.

“... There are so many kids in (the K through 8) age group. They have the Miracle League, but that’s all special ed. Then unified, but it’s only high school. Now we have something where we’re able to integrate and provide a place for these kids to come have fun and play, be a part of a team.”

Upward Sports works with the TIES program (Together Including Every Student), which provides buddies for special needs children who are physically unable to play on their own. It also has a group of volunteers who work with Nguyen to ensure every need it taken care of.

Right now, the majority of the Upward Sports league, which plays from 9 a.m. to 6:45 p.m. each Saturday, comes from Grand Island, though there are families from Niagara Falls, Tonawanda, North Tonawanda, Amherst and Buffalo. If you would like more information, email vinh@cornerstonechurch.life or call Cornerstone Church at 716-773-1004.

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