Youth Challenge provides opportunities to learn, grow

Mary Sue Tanis has met thousands of young people over the years through her work at Youth Challenge.

Tanis founded the nonprofit organization in 1976 to give kids with physical disabilities a place to come and participate in adapted sports and recreational activities.

As you’ll read in this month’s Building Stronger Communities feature, YC has fulfilled its mission to help these children. But it’s also provided some valuable life lessons for the more than 450 teen volunteers who help the kids take part in those games and activities each year.

A junior at Bay High School was recently paired with a boy in a wheelchair who had signed up to do a 5K.

“This girl is an excellent volunteer on our teen steering committee, but she had never run a 5K in her life,” says Tanis, who also serves as executive director.

“That’s not her thing. She’s into dance and drama. But she had to get ready to do a 5K with this boy. Lo and behold, when the race was over, she was so proud of herself. She never knew she could do it. As a teen volunteer, she got just as much out of the experience, and maybe more than the boy did. He was excited because he got his ribbon. But she was so jazzed because she accomplished a new goal that she had no idea she could do.”

It’s those kinds of stories that have made Youth Challenge such a special place.

The most visible programs involve helping kids to play adapted versions of volleyball, basketball, bowling and other games that kids without the same challenges take for granted. But YC has instituted other programs that are meant to help participants learn other skills that can help them find their way in the world as they get older.

“Our Youth Empowerment & Leadership Project (YELP), which is for youth 16 to 23 or so and our RISE program work with individuals to help them find employment situations or to learn how to navigate having a personal aide or how to deal with transportation or how to date socially without having another person around,” Tanis says.

“How do you behave socially in a bar or a restaurant? A lot of these things, no one has taught them. But because they’ve reached a comfort zone with us, they want to learn how to go out and do these things.”

To learn more about YELP and RISE, contact Chris Garr at [email protected] or (440) 892-1001.