Evening the Score: Basketball Ministry alongside Kids with Special Needs in Bryn Mawr

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Rev. Greg Klimovitz || November 4, 2016

Every Saturday for eight weeks, nearly 75 youth with various special needs along with 200-plus supportive friends, family, and members of the Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church gather in their gym for Game Day. As the players enter the court, names are announced, fans wave pompoms in the air, and teammates and coaches exchange high fives in an atmosphere as electric as any sports venue. The athletes’ ages range from six to twenty and, for many, this is the first time they have been afforded an opportunity to play on a real basketball team, put on a real uniform, and play in a real game.

This is the ministry of Upward Basketball.

Launched in 2012, the Upward Basketball ministry at Bryn Mawr provides a significant witness of welcome to young people with special needs. The program draws participants from Phoenixville, Media, Springfield, Upper Merion, Villanova, Radnor, Gladwyne, Narberth, and Bryn Mawr, and surrounding areas, with registration for this season filling up in just six days. “I saw a need in the area,” commented Sarah Smith, member of Bryn Mawr Presbyterian and founding director of their Upward program. “There are so few recreational opportunities for kids with disabilities that mimic those of typical children. There might be ‘special’ programs but they are so ‘special’ they do not provide the game day experience…[At Upward] they feel like they are a part of something typical, that their neighbors, friends, and brothers and sisters get to do. We want to make it as typical as possible, not ‘less than’ at all.”

The Upward ministry at Bryn Mawr is everything but less than. While the season only lasts for two months, Upward Basketball has evolved into a year-round community for youth with special needs, their families, and those in the congregation who support this vital ministry. Upward hosts award ceremonies, organizes fellowship gatherings, facilitates tournaments, attends Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers’ games, and the athletes were even invited to scrimmage the Phoenixville Area High School boys basketball team this past spring. The goal of the games, community events, and intentional embellishments, is to provide a celebratory environment open and available to all young people regardless of their perceived limitations. “I cannot tell you how moved I was by the whole experience of Saturday morning,” remarked a parent of an Upward athlete. “Not only did I take great joy in watching Alex enjoy his first experience as part of a team, but I was in awe of the ‘veterans’ on both sides: how they cheered and encouraged one another and the newcomers.”

The impact of Upward Basketball extends beyond the athletes and their families. The whole congregation at Bryn Mawr, to include youth and adults, has embraced this transformative and inclusive ministry. Teenagers serve as coaches and announcers, adults volunteer as referees and scorekeepers, and others watch as energetic fans eager to affirm those who run up and down the court in pursuit of a basket. Bryn Mawr’s confirmation program has also incorporated a Saturday of service with Upward as a part of their holistic curriculum. Along the way, young people with special needs are valued as the whole persons they are so, when they arrive at youth group or Sunday worship, they are known by name not disability. “For me, it really is a visible expression of the kingdom of God,” remarked Rev. Kellen Smith, Associate Pastor at Bryn Mawr. “Anyone and everyone is invited to take part. As it relates to special needs, any young person with special needs is invited to come and be a part of the community. Any members of the church are invited to take part and have a meaningful role. It really is an intergenerational ministry.”

As congregations and faith-based ministries explore how to welcome and affirm the dignity of all people, Upward is a beautiful example of how athletics can serve as sacred channel to share the love of God. Even more, Upward echoes the message of Christ, who invited all to come, play, and join in the festivities of the kingdom of God. Thanks be to God for the basketball ministry at Bryn Mawr. They have truly evened the score alongside their beloved neighbors.