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Meredith Holt, Published April 15 2013

Let's play: Programs provide recreation for kids with special needs, mobility issues

BARNESVILLE, Minn. - Last summer, Jackie Bekkerus joined her family on the beach for the first time.

Thanks to a special beach wheelchair provided by HOPE Inc., the 15-year-old Barnesville girl was able to venture into the water with her parents and three sisters.

“People take for granted the little things that we normally don’t get to do that everyone else does,” 36-year-old mom Melissa says.

Jackie, who has Down syndrome and uses a wheelchair, also participates in the Moorhead organization’s annual track meet, summer day camp and wheelchair soccer.

“Because of HOPE, my daughter knows what it’s like to be part of a team,” Bekkerus says.

In 2006, Moorhead couple Bill and Adair Grommesh expanded the program to year-round wheelchair sports. The Bekkeruses, who host the annual HOPE Inc. hayride, joined shortly afterward.

In the years since, the organization has grown from five to over 70 families. Together, they share their children’s growth, struggle and success.

“I can ask them anything and they’re all willing to help me with anything,” Bekkerus says of her HOPE friends.

Now HOPE Inc. provides a variety of sports and activities for kids as young as 2 and young adults up to age 23 with mobility challenges and their families. All abilities are welcome.

“We have enough adaptive equipment so everyone can play together,” says Grommesh, a 48-year-old mother of two whose home was featured in 2011 on the TV program “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” with son Garrett’s disabilities in mind.

HOPE offers sled hockey, adaptive skiing, wheelchair soccer, baseball, track meets, bowling, roller-skating, Zumba, dances, theater, picnics and other outings.

“You can pick and choose which activities and sessions to attend,” she says.

It was important to Grommesh to offer activities to families at little to no cost. Most cost $5 per week per family, and their assortment of adaptive bikes can be checked out for $10 per week.

Scholarships are available for families to participate in HOPE programs, which rely completely on grants and donations for funding.

“They have such a huge financial burden just raising a child with mobility challenges,” she says.

In many programs, special-needs kids are kept separate from their able-bodied peers and siblings. HOPE Inc. combines them.

“Our program is very family-centered, so not only can Emmett go, but Emma can go and Ethan can go,” Grommesh says of friends Bill and Raquel Ibach’s three children.

This weekend, all four Bekkerus daughters will be participating in HOPE Inc.’s annual fashion show.

Each family is eligible for a $75 West Acres mall gift card to use for clothes and accessories to model at the show, and proceeds go toward funding the next year’s.

“It allows the children to feel beautiful inside and out, even though we already know that,” Grommesh says.

Not only does HOPE provide families the opportunity to play together, but it gives children important life skills that can transfer over into the classroom and other settings.

“Our program isn’t just about sports and recreation, but it’s really providing critical programming to help with the emotional and social aspects of a child’s development,” Grommesh says.

Playing together and going on field trips in the community gives youth exposure to diversity of ability and mobility, which encourages acceptance and understanding.

“As young adults and kids get more integrated and see that all these children have the same wants and needs as they do, then those barriers are broken down and there’s not this fear,” Grommesh says.

Bekkerus and 38-year-old Raquel Ibach say their kids are more welcoming because they’ve grown up around differently abled children.

“They don’t see disabilities. They see ‘Emmett’s friends,’ and they know each child by name,” says Ibach, whose Fargo family has been involved with HOPE for about six years.

Most HOPE families live in Fargo-Moorhead, but some travel from places like Grand Forks, Fergus Falls, Perham, Willmar and Pelican Rapids.

“There’s more people in wheelchairs out there, and I wish they would come,” Bekkerus says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590