|Raising a child with special needs can be a challenge for any parent. John and Sarah Bowen of St. Louis were willing to take on the challenge – and the privilege – when they adopted their son, Jonah.
“I can’t say it was easy,” Sarah said. “The whole adoption process itself can be emotional; and knowing that there’s a possibility that special needs could come up in the future definitely added to that chaos of adoption, but the first year with him was really good.”
Both John and Sarah have worked in the medical field and therefore had a better understanding of early warning signs for intellectual disabilities.
Despite the possibility of raising a child with special needs, John and Sarah wanted to provide the best care possible for their son.
Sarah recalled that he was “just a typical baby and it was pretty much at his first birthday that he crawled and we noticed that certain milestones weren’t being met. That went on from there to different doctors to figure out how we could help.”
One outlet that has helped both Jonah, 4, and his parents has been their involvement in the Young Athletes® Program provided by Special Olympics Missouri. YAP is a sport and play program designed for children ages 3-7. Depending on the location of the program, it’s typically a one-hour session that lasts between four to eight weeks twice a year.
The program is designed get kids active by participating in games that will help build skills toward eventual sports inclusion as they grow up. While the program falls under the Special Olympics umbrella of programs, it’s open to all children, not just those with intellectual disabilities.
John and Sarah have been able to gain a support system through YAP. They both had positive feedback about the Young Athletes Program and what it means to them: “In a way, I would say it’s hope,” Sarah said. “It’s invaluable. We cherish the time we get to spend with other parents because they may just be saying something off the cuff and it sparks an idea it’s like ‘Oh, yeah, maybe we should look into that.’
“The joy for me is seeing Jonah running around participating, smiling and having a good time, but there’s also selfishly the parent side of it that I can take a break for an hour and talk to other adults.”
John agreed, “There are resources and help out there … (shows you) that you’re not alone. Everybody has a little bit of a different situation, but there are things we can share and learn from each other and I think that’s a good resource in that aspect, too.”
While Jonah’s parents have been able to gain a support system, Jonah has been able to gain confidence both intellectually and athletically. His growth has not gone unnoticed by his parents.
“He was always just…I wouldn’t say he was afraid, but there was always that barrier that he couldn’t seem to get over, but being in the Young Athletes Program especially has helped him with his confidence in doing activities and different sports and stepping over that barrier and going for it,” Sarah said.
John said Jonah can be himself at YAP functions.
“The program allows him to express himself just because the program is so active and it keeps him going,” John said.
Those who are in charge of running the Young Athletes Program have also observed the ways in which the program has benefited the Bowen family. One of those individuals is the St. Louis Metro Area Program Outreach Manager Aimee Loyet.
“Jonah is one of my most exciting young athletes by far,” Loyet said. “He does – for being such a little person and a young man – have a huge personality and a knack at commanding an entire room and getting people to feel comfortable and happy. He’s such a bright young boy and I’ve seen so much growth in him over the last few years.”
Because of Jonah’s continued growth and the support from his parents, they have endless opportunities for their future involvement with Special Olympics Missouri.
“I see not only the family but Jonah being able to lead his peers and be involved with the Athlete Leadership Program and spreading the word of SOMO,” Loyet said. “He would be a great spokesperson to have such longevity with the program as he moves into adulthood.”
Loyet said the Young Athletes Program is more than just training children with intellectual disabilities. It’s also training families and parents on having a support group, friends and additional resources in a non-judgmental group of parents who are going through those same struggles.
To learn more details about a Young Athletes Program near you, please visit our website at www.somo.org.