“We’re going to have a blast. Today is all about you,” Steve Merfeld, assistant men’s basketball coach, told a group of eager youngsters gathered in front of a basketball hoop inside the Championship Center on campus.
Summer sports camps are common, but this one was special.
At Creighton’s first Abilities Basketball Camp, 34 children with special needs were paired with Creighton physical therapy students and participated in drills and games with members of the men’s basketball team. The 2½-hour event was modeled after a similar program started by a professor at Butler University.
“We’re here to help the children participate to their maximum abilities,” said Lisa Black, associate professor and director of clinical education for Creighton’s physical therapy department. “This is so much fun.”
“Do you think you can score on me?” cajoled a smiling Mitch Ballock as one young camper dribbled toward the hoop. After the youngster scored, Ballock, a sophomore guard from Eudora, Kansas, gave a first pump and yelled, “Hey, nice shot!”
Creighton alumna Vicky Trost McHugh, DPT’98, recruited many of the participating families through her local pediatric physical therapy practice. Other families were recruited through the Creighton Pediatric Clinic and community physical therapists.
Third-year physical therapy student Tara Dorenkamp said she had no trouble getting students to help. “I sent out the email, and I got responses flooding in my box,” Dorenkamp said. “Lots of interest; everyone was so excited.”
Dorenkamp added: “My passion is working with kids. I hope to be a pediatric physical therapist some day, so this event broadened my horizons and gave me more experience working with kids of various needs.”
Butler officials had contacted Creighton about hosting such a camp. Merfeld described the event as a “win-win-win.”
“Obviously, the kids are going to have a great time interacting. The doctoral students are getting an experience they might not have on an everyday basis. And then certainly, for our players, they have an opportunity to realize how blessed they are and to work with these kids, who are just so happy to be here,” Merfeld said.
The student-athletes connected with the youngsters – whether it was encouraging a camper in a wheelchair to toss a basketball into a Powerade jug or lifting a child with Down syndrome to the rim so she could experience the thrill of a dunk.
Marcus Zegarowski, a freshman guard from Hamilton, Massachusetts, said the event was special for him – as a close family friend has Down syndrome, and his family has actively supported Special Olympics.
“It’s awesome to play basketball with these kids, and share some good times with them,” he said. “You can see the joy in their eyes.”
Susan Spohm of Omaha watched as her 16-year-old daughter, Sarah, interacted with the players. Sarah was born with holoprosencephaly, a disorder in which the brain fails to divide properly into the right and left hemispheres.
“It’s a wonderful feeling that you get, that people do care,” Spohm said. “And she loves people. She’s a people person.”
Spohm sheepishly admitted her family has not followed Creighton basketball closely. But she added with a smile: “We will now.”