There are few things on earth more priceless than seeing a child’s face light up with joy. For me at least, it can be even more meaningful to see those smiles burst forth as a result of athletic endeavors. I keep one such instance playing on a continual loop in my mind so that I can access it whenever I like.
My wife and I noticed early on that our daughter was different, but it wasn’t her congenitally crooked spine or her unilateral kidney. It was her mind. Addison always seemed hyper-aware and cognizant of things no child her age typically would be. Her sense of empathy was incredible, but this also led to great deal of anxiety.
And, like her old man, Addison has always been a bit obstinate. When we first signed her up for basketball, it took several minutes for me to calm her down so that her tears could abate enough for her to take the court. Once she made it out there, though, she worked hard and was a lockdown defender (inasmuch as that can be said for a 5-year-old).
But one thing she could never do was make a basket. Try as she might, she just didn’t have the strength to hoist the ball up to the rim. During the last game of the season, her coach even offered to lift her up in order to let her get that sought-after bucket, but she refused.
I signed her up for Tom Crean’s Little Hoosiers Camp the following summer, thinking it’d be a fun getaway for us and that I’d get to spend four mornings at Assembly Hall. I’ve watched a lot of IU basketball in my day and I’ve seen countless baskets made by hundreds of players, but none was more special that the one I witnessed on that first morning of camp.
As senior guard Jordan Hulls supervised, Addison took her place in a layup line, dribbled to the basket, and lofted a shot toward the rim. It bounced once, then dropped through the net and my face lit up. But then she turned and the smile on her face struck me so hard it brought tears to my eyes. I’m even getting a little misty now as I write this.
I’m blessed beyond measure to have a son as well, a little boy who’s got his mother’s ability to fall asleep at will and his father’s sense of mischief. Despite the fact that my kids are often at each other’s throats, laughter is more plentiful than bickering. Since that day in Bloomington, I’ve had the chance to see countless smiles on the court or the field.
But for some, children’s smiles can be few and far between and the access to sports limited or nonexistent. As the father of two children with disabilities, John Lorek is a man who knows this all too well. Some might have folded such a hand, but John pushed all his chips to the middle, betting big on his kids and so many others like them.
My connection to Lorek was really little more than a happy accident, though I like to think it was more than just random coincidence. In looking for something to write about on a Cubs off-day (not unlike today after the game was called due to rain), I came across a story about a baseball diamond for children with disabilities that was being built in Texas.
I was initially drawn to the story because the cause was being supported by The Chive, a humor website founded by one of my former college classmates and known more for photo galleries of cats, randomness, and scantily-clad women than human-interest stories. But the site also has a heart for charity, and they pumped quite a bit of blood, sweat, and money into the little ballfield.
The project itself was Loreck’s brainchild; he’s the one who saw in a vacant lot a place where kids could lay down the burdens of various maladies and just play ball. As a father and a baseball fan, I was blown away by John’s devotion and by the generosity of so many who got behind his cause.
The Chive has a much bigger reach than I do, but my little post somehow made it’s way to a computer in Hutto, TX, and I saw a comment from Mr. Lorek. We went back and forth there for a bit before taking the conversation to email. John mentioned that he might be looking to hold a baseball clinic in Chicago in the future and asked if I’d like to participate. I said sure, assuming it was a nice gesture and that John and I would continue along once more on parallel paths.
Then I saw an email in my inbox from a name with a familiarity that didn’t register immediately. It was John, who had recalled not only my article, but our discussion about the baseball clinic and even my son’s name. He also had a request for some assistance that I was more than happy to accommodate.
His daughter, Samantha, had been picked to be a student ambassador for the NFL’s Fuel Up to Play 60 Summit in Chicago this summer. If that wasn’t cool enough in and of itself, 12-year-old Samantha was the first such ambassador with an intellectual disability.
Born with microcephaly, a rare neurological condition in which an infant’s head is significantly smaller than the heads of other children of the same age and sex, Samantha has some developmental issues and John says she’ll likely be 10 years old mentally for the rest of her life. Young miss Lorek isn’t letting that slow her down though, having participated in the Special Olympics and now pursuing the Play 60 opportunity.
Along with her younger brother, Samantha has also spurred her dad to found Central Texas Ability Sports. Since there wasn’t already a place for kids like his own with physical and intellectual disabilities to participate in the athletic activities able-bodied kids have in abundance, John created one of his own. The ball diamond I wrote about is a shining example of what CTX Ability Sports is all about.
I must admit that I had some reservations about helping John when I learned that his daughter is a huge Cowboys fan, but that quickly went away when I remembered some of the other things we have in common. His wife is a Cubs fan and even the Cleveland-raised Lorek has excellent taste in baseball heroes.
The Play 60 Summit is scheduled to take place on July 22nd, which happens to fall two days prior to a Cubs/Phillies series in Chicago. Provided things don’t go too far south in Philly prior to that, John and I may get a chance to see the Cubs legend who provided his name to our sons. Yes, we each have a little boy named Ryne; another layer of coincidence, huh?
Any man from Cleveland who adds to the myriad disappointments of his own city by naming his son after a Cub is one who needs all the help he can get. And I would certainly love to help out with a clinic like the one held by the MLB Players Alumni Association in Hutto, TX last year, particularly if there’s a Cubs game involved in the trip.
But what really convicted me here and got me to throw my support behind John, or, more appropriately, Samantha, was the article I read about the Lorek family’s trip to Washington, D.C. last year. They were headed out so that John could participate in the White House Summit and Research Forum on Improved Health and Fitness for Americans with Disabilities.
His goal was to share his own experiences with CTX Ability Sports and to spur a more widespread inclusion of people with disabilities in athletics and activities. It wasn’t the event or John’s mission that really caught me though, it was hearing about Samantha’s experience there and on the flight home.
As he sat on a panel and looked out to the crowd, Lorek saw his daughter smiling back up at him. That’s the kind of thing that makes any father feel like he’s floating, but it was even more true in this case.
“The smile on Samantha’s face meant a lot because she hardly ever smiles anyway. She kind of knew this was pretty historic for our family but it also gave me insight into our organization and our program. If you want living proof of success of I Can Do It, You Can Do It! Program, take a look at my daughter.”
As they returned to Texas, a flight attendant asked Samantha and Ryne to help pass out snacks, an offer that brought yet another smile to the young girl’s face. Reading about that and knowing how I felt when I saw Addison light up, I can only imagine the joy welling up in John’s heart at that moment.
And that’s why I want to lend my support, and to ask you to lend yours, to help the Loreks make yet another trip. Even though Samantha has been chosen as a student ambassador, the family has to foot the bill for the trip to Chicago this summer for the Play 60 Summit. The goal is a modest one — $3,000 — and every donation is welcomed and appreciated.
I gave earlier through the campaign John set up through Fundly and if you’d like to help Samantha too, you can do so here. As for the baseball clinic, the hope is that we can actually hold one for kids with and without disabilities. Nothing is set yet, but John is working with the MLBPAA in the hopes of setting something up during the week they’ll be in Chicago.
It’s so easy in this time of hit-and-run social media connections to develop transient relationships, to take a voyeuristic peek into a small corner of someone’s life and then simply scroll right back out of it. In the interest of full disclosure, that’s what I thought I was doing with John Lorek and KCCO Ability Field. I’m just thankful that John had other ideas.
Despite the preconceived notion that I rake in millions through this incredibly popular blog, I am not a rich man. Well, not in terms of my bank account anyway. But I’ve got unimaginable wealth in the form of a wonderful family and a hobby that allows me to indulge my passion for writing. I don’t do this to make money, though now I hope it can raise some.
I’m often flippant and irreverent, whether it’s writing about the Cubs or about my own general insignificance in writing about them, which sorta makes me like the M.C. Escher of bloggers. But no matter the subject, it is my fervent desire that my words make someone laugh or cry or shake a fist in anger. I really just want to make someone feel something.
And now all I want from this post is to help make a little girl smile.
I shared this story with John after publishing it and got this response from him this morning:
Dude, I love it. She came home in tears yesterday from school. She has been going to the same elementary school for 7 years (Held back twice) and asked me why she has never won “Student of the Month” or got a Knighting award.
I told her, “She has a lot of friends trying to help her get to Chicago to be a Student Ambassador and that would be better than any school award!” She looked at me and said, “I hope I can go Daddy.”
UPDATE: The baseball clinic is all set. It’s being held on July 25th from 2-4pm at Foss Park District. For more details or to register your kids, just click here.