Burlington couple starts All Abilities Sports to serve special needs children

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Samantha Payne often left the soccer pitch in tears.

The Burlington mom was upset because her 7-year-old son Blake wasn’t getting much playing time on his team last fall. 

“He, basically, was not being given any playing time because he couldn’t keep up with the kids as much,” she said. “He just wasn’t as aggressive at getting out there. It was obvious that he was different from his peers.”

Samantha Payne and her husband Jon had a solution – they started All Abilities Sports NKY last May. The goal: give children with special needs a chance to try different sports and compete against others with similar challenges.

“It all started on the sidelines, it really did,” Jon said.

“Jon and I were basically, like, there has got to be something different,” Samantha added. “So we looked into it, and there are things kind of around the country, but there’s not really anything local that had the ability to give kids with disabilities an all-in-one place to play sports.”

Interest beyond NKY

Samantha Payne said the idea began with a post on several Boone County neighborhood groups on Facebook looking for interested families with special needs children ages 3-16. She wasn’t aware so many parents faced similar issues.

“We had just shared that we were having a hard time with our own son, who has special needs,” she said. “We got a very large response very quickly from a lot of families who said yes, this is a need in our community.”

And not just in Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties.

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“We have had families from Anderson Township in Ohio, some in, like, Lawrenceburg in Indiana that have reached out,” Samantha Payne said.

Within a week, the Paynes had a website (allabilitiesnky.com). People have donated enough money for equipment, including tennis rackets and kid-sized tennis rackets and baskeballs; Samantha Payne said about $2,500 has been raised so far.

Samantha Payne works part-time at The Point Arc on West Pike Street in Covington (she teaches high school seniors how to prepare for work after they graduate), and Jon is a police officer at Northern Kentucky University. 

The first event was a basketball clinic, Aug. 20 at Charles H. Kelly Elementary School on McVille Road in Burlington; Samantha Payne said about 50 children played.

“That filled up quick,” Jon Payne said. “That kind of showed us that there definitely was an interest and a need out there for something like this around the area.”

About 60 people volunteered, including Ryle’s boys basketball team, students from Conner, Cooper and Covington Catholic high schools and Thomas More University.

Lots of hugs’

Ryle senior Evan Smith taught shooting, but that wasn’t the first thing he mentioned Thursday.

Ryle’s Evan Smith hugs a participant in last Sunday’s All Abilities Sports’ “Try It Day” last Sunday at Kelly Elementary School in Burlington. Photo provided | Nick Dorning

“I got a lot of hugs,” Smith said. “I had to teach them how to somewhat shoot and got to run around with them and get some smiles on their faces.” 

Smith’s teammate, sophomore Anthony Coppola, worked with three players, two of whom had Down Syndrome.

“They struggled with hearing and noise and stuff,” Coppola said. “I took them into a hallway, and they enjoyed passing the ball.”

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One thing the Paynes are not doing: taking away children from Special Olympics of Northern Kentucky programs. Samantha Payne said she’s received messages “that have been less than kind and one (Tuesday) that was honestly heartbreaking and making me question whether this is worth it.”

“This is absolutely not the case. And I feel like because the power of social media can destroy so quickly I have to address this,” Samantha wrote in a Facebook post on Tuesday. “Questioning how we are different is absolutely fair and valid. However, telling us we are manipulating families and taking away from Special Olympics is hurtful.

“We are in absolutely ZERO way trying to take Special Olympics ideas and make anything our own.”

In an email sent Thursday, Special Olympics Kentucky President/CEO Trish Mazzoni said her organization welcomes support from any organization.

“After 55 years of working with people with intellectual disabilities, we know that our community and the disabilities community in general is not a one-organization-fits-all group,” Mazzoni said. “We also know the value of sports and physical activity for people with all disabilities of all kinds … We welcome All Abilities Sports to Northern Kentucky and wish them well as they move forward.”

Other events are scheduled: a soccer league Saturdays from Sept. 16-Oct. 14 at Boone Woods Park, 6000 Veterans Way in Burlington, a “Try it” tennis session from 1-4 p.m. Sept. 17 at Central Park, 9190 Camp Ernst Road in Union, and a baseball league from 6 p.m. to dusk Thursdays from Sept. 21-Oct. 19 at Erpenbeck Elementary School, 9001 Wetherington Blvd. in Florence.

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“We try to be inclusive to as many people in our community as we can,” Boone County Parks director David Whitehouse said. 

Schedules for indoor soccer and volleyball will be announced later.

The Paynes’ long-term goal is to have their own facility. They plan to add pickleball, lacrosse, cheerleading, dance, gymnastics and track and field. 

For now, however, they are sure about one thing: Blake will be playing soccer.

“Blake will tell you that he is very excited,” Samantha said. “He loves being able to make new friends and play with other kids. And he asks us all the time, ‘When do I get to play with my soccer friends?’”

For more information, email the Paynes at [email protected] or [email protected].

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