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Business First-Health First April 19,2002

Winning with WOW
Wheelchair-bound kids discover fun, friends, through organization

By Shannon Boone
BUSINESS FIRST CORRESPONDANT

    They may be the only children who use wheelchairs in their classrooms, or even in their schools.  But when physically disabled youngsters join the Winners On Wheels program, they truly become part of a circle of friends.
     Based in Fresno, California, the national non-profit program is similar to scouting-participants complete projects to earn badges, called “wheels.”
    But WOW uses a racing theme, with activities or “spokes” that teach life, social, and team-building skills to boost self-esteem.  WOW groups are called “Circles” and the participants, usually ages 7 to 12 are known as “Winners”.
    High school-aged “Junior pit crew” volunteers work with Winners assist adult helpers during group activities with meeting themes that range from nature to child care to kitchen chemistry.
     Earned wheels can be attached to bags that can be displayed on the backs of Winners’ wheelchairs.
     Louisville resident Michelle Bazeley, 25, founded the local WOW Circle, Kentucky’s only chapter, in September 2000 with $200 in start-up funding from the national organization to be used for items such as postage, supplies for activities, and snacks…..Born with spina bifida, a congenital defect resulting in imperfect closure of part of the spinal column, Bazeley uses a wheelchair and knows the daily challenges her young WOW charges face.

A chance to make friends, have fun
     “I think especially for the children, WOW gives them a chance to socialize with kids who are just like them,” she said. “Most of the kids we get have been mainstreamed in school” and are not enrolled in special education classes, she said.
     Bazeley, who began working with the WOW program in Cincinnati before moving to Louisville about three years ago, said she’s seen WOW participants become much more outgoing while in the group.
     She works as the art coordinator with Louisville’s Options for Individuals, a private agency day program for adults with severe disabilities on South Fourth Street.  Bazeley holds a bachelors of art degree in theatre design and production from the University of Cincinnati.
 In the summer of 2000, Bazeley contacted officials with the Spina Bifida Association of Kentucky, which agreed to sponsor a handful of children who have spina bifida by paying their $25 WOW membership dues.

WOW can be motivating influence
     Heidi Yost Corner, executive director of the Spina Bifida Association of Kentucky, said Bazeley is an “excellent example of a role model for young women, with or without a disability.”
      WOW is a “quality program” that benefits many members of the Spina Bifida Association, Corner said.
     “The WOW program provides increased self-esteem for its members and safe, fun opportunities for socialization.”
     Attendance was shaky at first, but Bazeley knows that slow and steady win the race.  “We had one Circle meeting when I showed up and I was the only one there.” Bazeley said with a laugh.  Now meetings are held… with a small but steadfast group of two adult volunteers,  three junior Pit Crew members and eight Winners, including Candice Warburg, 11, of Louisville, a WOW member since December 2000.

    Making life in a wheelchair a richer experience
 Candice was born with cerebral palsy, which affects her speech and physical abilities.  Through her mother, Laura Warburg, Candice said she loves attending WOW meetings.  “I like WOW because I like hanging out with my friends,” she said.  “And Michelle is cool!”
     Laura Warburg said her daughter attends fifth grade at Bates Elementary School with several children who use wheelchairs, but in the structured classroom environment she has little time for socialization.  That’s where WOW comes in.
     “She likes the independence away from us, and it’s a chance to give her the opportunity, really, and that doesn’t easily happen,” she said.
     The WOW experience is so valuable to Candice, Warburg said, because it provides social opportunities with peers who are going through similar experiences.
 “They’re there to have fun and work on goals that WOW has set up,” Warburg said.

Opportunities for rural children
     Hannah Broughton, 7, of Pleasureville in Henry County, has attended WOW meetings for the past year, and she said aside from the socialization, her favorite part of WOW meetings is the snacks.
     Hannah, who has spina bifida, has earned eight wheels in various areas so far.
     “I make a lot of friends,” she said.  Her mother, Aimee Broughton, said it’s inspiring for WOW participants and parents to see Bazeley living a busy, fulfilled adult life and also to receive her moral support.
     “I think that helps (Hannah) feel confident,” she said.  “Michelle and the rest of them are really good bout telling them, ‘Good job!’  They’re always telling Hannah, ‘If you ever need to talk to anybody, call me,’ and that helps me too.”
     Broughton said there are too few activities for physically disabled children, especially in rural areas.  Broughton’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth, 10, plays soccer and basketball.  But because Hannah is a special needs child, organized activities for her in Henry County don’t exist.
     So WOW is Hannah’s alternative to soccer or basketball. Broughton said.  “It’s something just for her.”
     Morgan Crawford, 17, of Louisville, has cerebral palsy but enjoys helping WOW winners with crafts and other activities as a junior pit crew member.  “I thought it would be neat to help people in a wheelchair because I use a wheelchair,” she said.  “It’s like a scout troop, probably, for people in wheelchairs.”

Expanding WOW’s reach
     With donations from fund-raisers and contributions from the local business community, Bazeley hopes to reach more children by helping their parents pay membership fees.  Increased financial support could enable WOW members to take field trips, she added.
     Artopia programming assistant Troy Jackson said winners prove that their wheelchairs are merely a means of mobility overshadowed by their vitality and enthusiasm.
 WOW allows its members “to get together and socialize and have fun and in many ways act like a normal kids,” he said.
     According to WOW’s national Web site, www.wowusa.com, the group has grown since its inception 1991 by paraplegic entrepreneur Marilyn Hamilton to include Circles in 22 states.  Nancy Garrett, program director for the national WOW headquarters in Fresno, California said there are about 350 WOW participants in programs similar to Louisville’s in the United States, although others participate in correspondence or online programs.  WOW can be a positive, life-altering force for participants, Garrett said.
     “Our kids that come to us, most of them come to us feeling like they’re victims because of their situation, living in a chair basically,” she said.  “They come to the Circle and they learn how to be a winner so they can have a fulfilled life and have joy.”