On Thursday, Youth Challenge of Westlake held its 14th annual boating regatta at Edgewater Yacht Club in Cleveland, where 40 children with physical disabilities were able to ride on either sailboats or the charter boat Holiday.
The 10 boats took children, volunteers and Youth Challenge staff on a cruise through the Inner Harbor near downtown Cleveland, passing such scenic sites as the Cleveland Browns Stadium, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and the Steamship William G. Mather Museum. Several members of both the Edgewater Yacht Club and the Cleveland Yachting Club donated their boats and their time to take participants out onto the open waters.
“It gives them an experience that even able-bodied children can’t have. It’s a precious experience,” said Melissa Thurstone, community development manager of Youth Challenge. “We want to make the kids with physical disabilities feel the most comfortable. When the children are out sailing, there are no disabilities on the water.”
For many of the children, the regatta has been an annual event they look forward to. Hannah, of Fairview Park, will be entering the eighth grade this fall and has been participating in Youth Challenge events for nearly nine years, and loves riding on the sailboats each year. Hannah aspires to be a writer and has already begun working on a novel aimed for teenagers.
“Youth Challenge is so much fun and it’s a great place,” said Hannah. “You meet your best friends here. For kids like us with disabilities, it’s hard to do stuff regular kids do like gymnastics and soccer,” Hannah said about how she has valued the opportunities provided by Youth Challenge.
Youth Challenge is a nonprofit organization founded in 1976 by Mary Sue Tanis, who was fresh out of college and wanted to work with children with physical disabilities. Tanis went knocking from door to door to find members, and her organization has grown from the original 10 families to more than 500 families in seven counties.
Youth Challenge welcomes any child between the ages of 4 and 18 with a physical disability to participate in the program. Volunteers are teenagers who are at least 12 years of age and are paired one-on-one with a participant of Youth Challenge. Each volunteer undergoes specialized training and acts as an informal friend to the children of Youth Challenge. The organization offers “no fee” programs and transportation to each child, and provides each child with the opportunity to participate in adaptive sports and recreation.
“The whole idea is that anything I can do, it is only fair that every child should be provided the same opportunity as me,” said Tanis. “The children are accepted here and they have a teen volunteer and they have fun together. The volunteers know how to be respectful, but yet playful.”
Charles (Chuck) and Nancy Gustafson of Rocky River donated their time and their Tartan Ten sailboat, Wind Sprint. Chuck purchased his first sailboat in 1984, and has been volunteering his time and talents to Youth Challenge for the past 12 years at the annual event.
“It’s great how the event has grown,” he said. “My favorite part is the kids and their enjoyment. They enjoy being on the boat.”