The Lexington area’s only week-long basketball camp for athletes with special needs wrapped up its premiere week Friday with an exhibition scrimmage at the gym of WinStar Farm in Versailles.
A few months ago, the camp was nothing more than an idea of Elisabeth Jensen, a former democratic candidate for Kentucky’s sixth congressional district. Jensen was looking for a basketball camp for her son, Will, but couldn’t find a suitable one in the area. Will is autistic and plays on a basketball team affiliated with the Special Olympics.
“I wasn’t sure how this would work out at first,” Jensen said after the scrimmage on the camp’s final day. “I’m just glad to see how happy the athletes are.”
Frustrated that there was no basketball camp her son could attend, Jensen contacted WinStar Farm, which she had previously done marketing work for, and asked if she could use the farm’s gym. Not only did the Thoroughbred farm allow her to use the gym, they became a leading sponsor for the camp.
“We were able to make the camp free for everyone thanks to WinStar and they’ve already told us they will host next year,” Jensen said.
After contacting the state’s Special Olympics office in Frankfort, the camp received 17 interested athletes and several volunteers. Other challenges included finding coaches that could volunteer during the day.
One volunteer coach, Bill Steinman, said he volunteered because his daughter, Julia, has Down syndrome and competes with the Special Olympics.
Steiman said he loved working with the players and saw them grow during the week.
“It’s a place for kids to have fun and competition,” Steinman said. “What comes out of it is community.”
Tammy Ralph, a player on the camp’s blue team, the Dribbling Dolphins, said she heard about the camp in an email from her Special Olympics track and field coach. She also plays for the Scott County Red Heat.
Ralph said she enjoyed being able to compete and making friends.
“My favorite thing is being able to scrimmage and being around people like me,” Ralph said. “It’s a good opportunity to enjoy yourself.”
Eli Sloan, 8, said his favorite parts of the week were tie dying the team’s jerseys and working with his coach, Amber Riddle.
The camp’s two teams, the Fire Tigers and the Dribbling Dolphins, played a full game on the last day of camp, with the Fire Tigers winning 30 to 28.
Athletes at the camp had two basketball training sessions each day, but also took part in a variety of other activities, such as touring the horse farm, working with a music therapist and playing with a giant set of blocks. Former University of Kentucky basketball player Jack Givens also visited the camp Thursday.
Givens, who helped UK win a national championship in 1978, said he worked with the kids on three key elements of basketball: good sportsmanship, helping your teammates and having fun.
Givens had this advice for future volunteers.
“Make sure to bring lots of hugs because they really appreciate all you do,” he said.