Youth Challenge gives kids with disabilities, and their helpers, lasting experiences

When Mary Sue Tanis launched Youth Challenge 40 years ago, she sought to create opportunities for kids with disabilities to take part in the same kinds of sports and recreational activities that all kids like to play.

Back then, it was all about the kids with muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, spina bifida and other impairments that make it difficult for them to be active and it still is to this day. But Youth Challenge has also become a place for the teen volunteers who work with those kids to have their own powerful experiences that will last a lifetime.

“No one does what we do,” says Tanis, the nonprofit organization’s founder and executive director. “No one takes a 12-year-old out of their seventh-grade classroom and has them show up at 3:45 with a nametag and a little boy who has spina bifida. They are instructed that they will do stretches and then play seated volleyball for an hour and a half and they can’t leave that child.”

Each day, children ages four to 18 come to Youth Challenge and play sports and games that are adapted in such a way that they can do it. They work one-on-one with a teen volunteer who helps the kids play seated volleyball or basketball or bowling or swimming or some other activity that they likely have never had the chance to do before.

“Then that volunteer gets his snack, climbs in his mom’s car, goes home and tells his family what he did that day to help someone,” Tanis says. “When he is lying in bed at night, he feels like he actually did something for someone else. He made a difference in someone’s life.”

The evolution of the place known as YC from its opening back in 1976 to an organization that has more than 180 participants and more than 450 teen volunteers each year has indeed changed lives.

“One of the reasons we’ve survived in what we do is we’re obsessed with quality and that relationship between the disabled child and the teen volunteer,” Tanis says. “If we can’t do it right and we don’t know all their names, then we failed.”

Making memories

Over the years, technological advances have been made to help kids with disabilities get around more easily. Tanis remembers back in the 1980s when she took a group of YC participants to see The Nutcracker in downtown Cleveland.

“Back then, all the wheelchairs were rigid and terribly difficult to maneuver,” she says. “We used to take pickup trucks everywhere we went and we had adult volunteers who helped get everybody set up.”

It wasn’t easy. But Tanis also remembers the reaction of those kids to seeing The Nutcracker.

“Just to see them so nice in their winter coats doing something at Christmas time,” Tanis says. “We felt this population was missing out on things the average 10-year-old could do.”

Tanis is proud that Youth Challenge is a place where the parents of children with disabilities can go and be understood.

“How critical is it to the family, not just the child, but the family of someone who is five or six and has a disability to find YC, walk in the door and see a place that totally gets it more than they do because of our experience. There is a lot of depth here. When a child walks in, he’s looking around and he sees a cool wheelchair. Or he sees a bunch of kids playing seated volleyball on the floor with a buddy. Socially, he’s like, ‘I’m going to get a friend.’”

It’s about a lot more, however, than just learning to play games at Youth Challenge. There are dance and drama programs, social activities and opportunities to learn and grow.

The goal is to help kids become more fit physically and socially and be more prepared for life as they get older.

“The kid that is 18 or 19 or in college can come here and walk in the door independently, do cardio, get his or her body back in shape, start to learn about nutrition and establish some life skills that are meaningful and relevant,” Tanis says.

Staying relevant

Youth Challenge serves children from seven counties, which includes Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain, Medina, Stark and Summit counties. Partnerships have been built over the years with communities, agencies, hospitals and businesses to further YC’s mission.

“The relationships we’ve grown, which were friendships in the beginning, are how we’ve succeeded,” Tanis says. “If we have a partner that allows us to use the pool at no charge, we help the community by providing services for a population that their recreation department can’t serve. They don’t offer daily physical activity programs for kids with disabilities. We do. So it’s a win-win.”

As she looks to the future, Tanis says her goal is to continue to develop the next generation of leaders for the organization and take steps to ensure that YC remains relevant.

“If the kids come in and it’s not something that’s relevant or the teen volunteers come and it’s not something they can carry out the door and apply somewhere else in life,” Tanis says, “then why are we here?”

How to reach: Youth Challenge, (440) 892-1001 or