Buffalo Family Scores Nothing But Net with Inclusive Wheelchair Basketball League

Emily is 10 years old and has spina bifida, and this is her family’s story about building something yourself when it isn’t already available so that all kids can shoot hoops together! 

Today is World Spina Bifida Day, and we have an incredible story to share about one family’s persistence in creating an opportunity for their daughter!

Thank you so much, to Emily’s mom, Liz Keicher, for sharing your story with us!

“Emily is extremely involved and outgoing, and she loves participating in everything, especially sports. Over the years, she has tried adaptive swim and golf. She has played adaptive baseball for the past 4 years and is in her second year on the Buffalo Sabres Sled Hockey team. She has also done over 20 kids’ races of varying lengths, most recently over Columbus Day weekend when she participated in the Boston Half Marathon Kids race. She wants to do longer races (5ks) but doing that in her forearm crutches is too much, so she is learning push-rim racing now as a team member of the Rochester Rookies Track and Field Team.

Images courtesy of Keicher Family

That probably seems like a lot, but in all of this, the one sport she has asked about the most is basketball. And I’m quite sure it all has to do with her dad, Chris. He played high school basketball, college basketball, and has coached junior varsity basketball for the past 15 years. Emily and I go to his games, she watches him coach and sees the practices, so she wants to participate!

Stand-up basketball wasn’t going to work with adaptive equipment like forearm crutches or a walker. So, we started looking at wheelchair basketball. I think we looked for a program for over a year and then finally, in the spring, we found a six-week program that runs over the summer in Rochester, New York (about 1.5 hours away from us). We took her the first week, she got in a sports wheelchair and learned a few things, and LOVED it. We told a bunch of her friends and teammates who also traveled the next few weeks to try it and they all had the same experience.

The thing we took away from seeing the kids play was how intense and competitive the sport is. It’s a substantial workout, and the skill level is high. But the thing that struck Chris and me the most was that people with various levels of disabilities can all play. People who can walk without adaptive equipment. People who use crutches. People who use a walker. People who use a wheelchair. People who don’t have disabilities. Everyone is on the same team once they are all in wheelchairs. Everyone is playing equally together. I mean, that’s what we want across the board, but here is a sport where that goal is already happening. Why not be playing with ALL your friends?

In speaking with those parents, they were completely on board with participating if we had a local league. Chris and I thought about it. Why couldn’t we get this started back in Buffalo? All we needed was a dozen sports wheelchairs and a gym. Chris could coach the team, and we could bring in former wheelchair basketball players each week to work with him and with the kids.

We knew we would have to fundraise and get grants for the sports chairs, but that would be a lengthy process. We really didn’t want this to take 1 to 3 years. Emily is 10 years old. We had a bunch of kids interested that are all about that same age, and it seemed ridiculous to have to wait even longer than we already had to play basketball.

Chris, Emily, and I were able to sit down with Greater Buffalo Adaptive Sports (formerly The Sled Hockey Foundation). We were familiar with the non-profit as they had hosted many “try-it” clinics for sled hockey and that’s how Emily got started in that program. They help provide opportunities to people with disabilities so they can participate in adaptive sports. We told them about the program and about how we needed sports chairs. And right away, they said, “Look – we have 13 sports wheelchairs that are used for Buffalo Bandits Wheelchair Lacrosse, but they are in their off-season. We would love to loan the chairs to you guys so this can start ASAP.” It’s hard to even describe what a weight off our shoulders that was, to be able to borrow the chairs so we could start right away! And they have continued working with us over the past five weeks, which we are so grateful for.

The last step was getting a gym, and Chris reached out to our local Boys and Girls Club in Depew/Lancaster. They have a renovated facility that has an elevator, and Chris grew up playing there. He reached out to them to see about getting 2 hours of gym time each week so we could run the program there, and they immediately said yes. And suddenly, six weeks after saying, “Hey, let’s get this in Buffalo” we were looking at hosting the first practice.

We are now 5 practices in. The first week, we had five kids. Then we had eight. On practice on Thursday, we maxed out our chairs and even had Emily play in her “everyday chair” so we could open a sports wheelchair up to players who were waiting on the sidelines. Fourteen kids. Kids with various disabilities, and their friends without disabilities, just absolutely enjoying learning everything they can about wheelchair basketball. The best part is seeing Emily out there having a blast, looking at her Dad coaching, seeing her peers all playing and participating and having a blast themselves.

So, we have grown quickly and will turn our efforts into fundraising to get more chairs, and our own chairs, and other things we need, like uniforms. We expect even more kids at the next practice! It’s amazing what can happen when the opportunity is created. It’s amazing how unbelievable the community has been in helping and embracing the program. All this was from Emily wanting to play basketball. From her asking for the opportunity to do something, to participate, something any kid would want – to be out on the court, hanging out with her friends,
learning the sport, and having fun.”

Happy #WorldSpinaBifidaDay, and don’t forget that for 500,000 people across the globe, we are living with spina bifida every day and constantly looking for solutions that allow us to live our best lives! ?

Please “like” Buffalo Wheelchair Basketball on Facebook and support local initiatives in your communities that promote inclusion!

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