Special needs youth and volunteer Buddies soar in Y Challenger

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A remarkable program of the YMCA of Greater Kansas City is marking a decade of success in helping children and young adults with special needs grow physically and socially. The program is called Y Challenger and it centers on adaptive sports and activities. This week’s FOX 4 young achievers are shining stars in Y Challenger – one as an athlete and the other as a volunteer Buddy.

Y Challenger night at Retro Bowl always makes for a packed house at the bowling center in Liberty. On one lane 7th grader Abby Fleenor helps kids with physical, intellectual or developmental disabilities get the ball down the lanes. Down the way 15-year-old Dalton Kaiser, a high school sophomore, grabs a ball and hurls it toward the pins. Dalton’s regular Buddy and others are close by, as always.

“They stay at my side,” said Dalton, one of this week’s FOX 4 Young Achievers. “They help me. They work with me. And they teach me.”

Dalton has autism and he’s a Y Challenger athlete. Abby is a typically developing 12-year-old and she’s a dedicated volunteer Buddy in the program.

“The kids are really excited to see me,” said Abby, this week’s other FOX 4 Young Achiever. “They are always wanting me to be there. So I always like to be there. And I never try to miss a Challenger volunteer day.”

The YMCA of Greater Kansas City launched Y Challenger 10 years ago to open up regular opportunities in all sorts of indoor and outdoor sports and recreation for children and young adults with diverse disabilities.

“We adapt with what is necessary for them to succeed,” said Raegan Schurr, Y Challenger Director. Schurr said challenged athletes like Dalton gain not only in physical ways but also socially, through personal growth, fun and friendships.

“(Dalton) has evolved with his speech and with his confidence.” And Schurr said Dalton is advancing in other ways, like an engaging sense of humor.

“People get joy from that and I think he does, too,” said Schurr. Abby grows in the program, as well, in understanding and empathy, as she contributes a lot of her time and builds friendships with the athletes she assists.

“It’s so natural,” said Schurr of Abby’s connections with the athletes. “She’s so kind. She can come across and help. She’s hands on. She can get down and talk to them. For someone her age to really get it, boy she does.”

Dalton has been doing Y Challenger sports for almost the entire 10 years of the program and participates year round. Abby became a Y Challenger Buddy about a year and a half ago after stepping up in 5th grade to assist a classmate with special needs at school.

“I like seeing kids excel and their expressions when they’re done,” said Abby. And for Dalton, each achievement over the years in Y Challenger sports has been monumental.

“Proud!” said Dalton. “It makes me proud!” As they soar individually, athletes and Buddies shine together in Y Challenger. 10 years and going strong.

Many of the Y Challenger activities take place at the Fred and Shirley Pryor Challenger Sports Complex in Kansas City North that’s specially designed and built for the program. As Y Challenger celebrates 10 Years Strong, it’s now serving 1500 participants through 10 different programs at seven locations.

FOX 4 News is Working 4 You to spotlight outstanding young people and their positive accomplishments. In our weekly report called Reaching 4 Excellence we meet young achievers in subjects like academics, the arts, leadership, community service, volunteerism, career exploration, overcoming obstacles and heroism. Watch for Reaching 4 Excellence every Wednesday on FOX 4 News at 9 p.m. and every Thursday on FOX 4 News at 8 a.m. and noon.