Do you remember the first time you played a sport? For me it was wiffle ball, then soccer, then I ran in a kids track meet. What was it for you?
Now think about what it would have been like if you were a kid with a disability, or if you were a kid who simply had needs that didn’t quite fit the status quo. What were your options? What sports would have been available to you?
Sports have so many benefits for kids. They help develop social, physical, and mental skills. Playing sports and being on a team creates opportunities for problem solving, working with others, celebration, and sportsmanship. Even if a kid doesn’t continue the sport throughout their childhood or young adulthood, it’s a chance to develop essential skills in a setting that is based in play. And that is only amplified when it comes to children who have special needs.
This is where Game Changers Idaho comes in to play. It's a sports league for kids with disabilities. The organization uses multiple kinds of sports as a vehicle to create relationships and focus on the ability of children, rather than the disability.
How it started
Gabriel Moreno was young, in college and needed a job. Children's Therapy Place was hiring, and while he had no prior experience working with the disability community, he was interested.
Gabriel was partnered with a kid with autism, and they quickly bonded. He formed a great connection with both the child and the child’s family, so he stuck with that job throughout college. That led to working with another kid, then to a job in special ed, then to an internship with the Special Olympics. As an intern, Gabriel started the first ever flag football program for the Special Olympics. He continued working for the organization, becoming the director for the Idaho chapter by age 25. And while all that sounds like he was on a career trajectory, these experiences revealed not only what he really wanted to do, but where and how he could do it.
Gabriel knew he loved working with the disability community. He also realized that he really liked being able to communicate with all kinds of people, he enjoyed building volunteer teams, and he loved the logistics of events – big and small. Back then, Special Olympics programs were geared more toward adult athletes and they mostly operated by doing one-day camps and large events throughout the year. Gabriel wanted more. He saw an opportunity for Boise to have a consistent sports program for young athletes.
“I've had different experiences working with different organizations and lots of times, especially with the disability population, there's not a whole lot of structure. You know, it's a one day sports camp here and there,” said Gabriel. “We take a lot of pride in how we go about our organization.”
This is how Game Changers Idaho came to be. And in many ways, they are just getting started.
Meet the Game Changers
Game Changers Idaho started in 2018 as a flag football program. With 40 kids and a few friends volunteering, the league was a huge success. So much so, that Gabriel knew they could do more.
“We’re serving such a cool population of kids, the parents are so thankful, and the volunteers are awesome – so why not do more?” he said.
Today, Game Changers is a year-round league with over 300 kids playing multiple seasonal sports. It's completely free. Many parents donate what they can, but there is never a cost to be involved. This year, Game Changers has 130 kids playing flag football, 50 kids doing CrossFit, 30 kids on the gymnastics team, 8 kids doing fencing, about 100 kids on soccer teams, and a handful of kids playing golf.
In March 2023 alone, Game Changers athletes were active 12 of the 31 days. They had 144 athletes participate in fencing, CrossFit, and gymnastics, supported by 163 volunteers.
“I hate to use the word normal, but it’s a normal sports program for kids with disabilities,” said Gabriel.
Athletes start with a meet and greet. It’s sort of like a try-out. It gives Gabriel a chance to meet the kid and their family, find out what they are interested in and what level they are at, so he can be sure to place them on a team where they will have fun and have room to grow.
Sports happen all year long, but fall and spring are the main seasons with multiple sports happening simultaneously. Some kids do two to three sports; others do one sport. But it’s the element of consistency that makes such a difference to both kids and parents.
“We have kids that are playing, you know, CrossFit and flag football in the same week. And that’s something that parents didn't ever think they'd have on their schedule – two sports opportunities for their kid.”
Game Changers also gives kids regular opportunities to build and maintain friendships by being on a team with other kids who go to different schools, churches, clinics, etc.
“It’s what parents really like about it, that it’s not just a one-day sports camp,” said Gabriel. “That’s what my experience comes from – parents that are tired of hearing about inclusion when it feels like their kid is sometimes just a photo op. They want more, physically.”
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A few years ago, Gabriel launched Little Game Changers to create an opportunity for 3 to 5 year olds to start playing sports. Right now it’s a quarterly program, because it takes support from his best volunteers. They have drill and sports camps for kiddos with physical or cognitive disabilities to try different sports and skills in a fun and adaptable environment. When Little Game Changers turn 6, they graduate and can enter soccer, football or another Game Changers program.
“It’s really cool to see that growth starting from such a young age,” said Gabriel, smiling. “Parents can see that growth and development because of sports – and it’s growth that their kids are able to feel, you know?”
Gabriel said he’s witnessed this ripple effect, time and time again. Kids experience growth while playing sports and it expands to other parts of their lives, like therapy and school and behaviors at home.
“That is not one of our missions, but something we regularly see,” said Gabriel.
Speaking of their mission, Game Changers Idaho's mission is maybe not what you’d expect. The organization exists “to find those who seek to spread goodness so others may be fulfilled.”
Gabriel explained, “It’s not about kids with disabilities. It’s more about finding really good people in the community. What do you have to offer? And then how are you able to offer that to our population?”
Gabriel started the flag football program because he really enjoyed playing flag football with kids – simple as that. As he began to consider expanding their offerings, his friend who owns a CrossFit gym was interested in starting a program, which has since flourished. He had another friend who taught special ed and was a gymnastics coach. The same story goes for the other sports offered through Game Changers. All of their sports teams started because a person in the community had experience with the sport and an interest in sharing it.
Each sport is led by a coach who has experience leading the activity. The coach gathers a group of volunteers to help with coaching the sport and Gabriel brings a team of additional volunteers who can help with behavioral coaching and extra support.
The entire organization is supported by volunteers. Since its inception in 2018, Game Changers has never had an employee. Gabriel has grown the organization and its offerings all while working on it part-time and with the help of an awesome board of directors, an ever-growing team of volunteers, and parents who help whenever they can. But that’s changing next month when Game Changers will officially become Gabriel’s full-time job.
“I envisioned it would be a full time job someday, I just didn’t know when,” he said. “It’s just what makes me happy and I’m very thankful.”
The future of Game Changers
Gabriel isn’t planning to add more sports anytime soon. He has his hands full – and his car.
The next big thing for Game Changers is a company vehicle to transport gear to and from more than a dozen different locations and activities.
As you may know, this week is Idaho Gives. The state-wide giving event is a chance for the community to support our local nonprofits.
For Idaho Gives 2023, Game Changers Idaho has a fundraising goal of $30,000 to buy a large vehicle to help transport gear – and From Boise is proud to be one of their matching donors.
From Boise is matching $5,000 in donations to help Game Changers Idaho reach (or exceed!) their goal. Join us in supporting Game Changers Idaho by making a donation here.
A few more ways you can support Game Changers:
- Donate during Idaho Gives (ends on Thursday, May 4!)
- Become a monthly donor
- Sponsor a team
You can learn more about Game Changers Idaho & get involved with this amazing organization at www.gamechangersidaho.com
Thanks for reading!
With love from Boise,
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