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A Special Fan

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    <span>Noah's heart touches the heart of the community  

By KIM SIMMONS
Excelsior Springs Standard Sports Editor

"How many of you are six-sport athletes?" ESSD Activities Director Jesse Hall asked the crowd at the closing ceremonies of the recent Tiger Golf Classic.

The folks in the crowd looked around but found no raised hands. Hall then introduced Excelsior's very own six-sport athlete - Noah Marker, a student at Westview Elementary School (who is celebrating his eighth birthday today). Noah had been asked to introduce the emcee of the evening, Gregg Williams.As Noah approached the microphone, rolling forward in his wheelchair from backstage, he simply said, "Ladies and gentlemen -- Mr. Gregg Williams." And with those few words, a picture-perfect snapshot of the beautiful heart of the Excelsior Springs community was captured in 20 short minutes.
• • •
But first - a little history:

Noah, who is a young student/athlete (presently competing in baseball, bowling, basketball, tennis, soccer and swimming), was born with a syndrome called arythrogryposis. It is a condition that severely limits his joint function.

"The syndrome causes weak muscles," explained Noah's mother, Christy. "In Noah's case, his joints are contracted so he can't bend his knees, for example. He also has a trach (tracheotomy) because it has affected his jaw."

Although Noah faces obvious physical limitations, his cognition is normal and he, like so many disabled children, wants to participate in the same activities as any other child.

Noah's parents have found an avenue that allows their son to participate in his favorite activity - sports. That opportunity has been made available through the YMCA Challenger Program - a program that has been earmarked to receive funds from this year's Tiger Classic.

The program was started in 2006 and is designed to give children who face physical and/or mental disabilities the opportunity to participate in sports. But according to Michelle Ford, President of Adaptive Programming for the Kansas City area YMCA, the program is about much more than just sports.

"We want to make sure that these kids have the same opportunities as other children," said Ford. "We also want to give families of disabled kids the opportunity to see their children succeed and to network with other parents."

According to Ford, the Challenger Program has tripled in size since its inception but to date; only 377 children are being served out of a community of 25,000 kids with disabilities (Kansas City metropolitan area).
"Our goal is to get the word out," she said, stating that the program is actually for special needs people age's 10-years-old to adults - and oftentimes their siblings. (Noah's two-year-old brother, Kane, for example, is presently participating in a bowling program.)

According to the YMCA's website information, the long-term goals of the program include "increased self-esteem, increased coordination, flexibility and mobility and skill development. The long-term goals of volunteers involved as buddies include: a better understanding of individuals with disabilities; leadership skills and self-esteem."

"Being involved with the Challenger Program becomes an incredible experience for volunteers," said Ford. "We see tremendous change in their attitudes about people with disabilities."

"Really, Noah is a normal kid," added Christy. "He has the same desires and aspirations as other kids. Some people tend to pity him, but we have never sheltered him. He is proud of himself. He is active and very involved, and we are very proud of him."
• • •
Now, back to the heart of this story:

("Ladies and gentlemen -- Mr. Gregg Williams" ... Noah Marker) Coach Williams came to the microphone after Noah's introduction and told the crowd that he had never been given an introduction as nice as Noah's. "In fact," he quipped, "Noah did a better job than Jesse (Hall) does, and he's had a lot more experience."

Williams also congratulated Noah on his extraordinary involvement in sports and spoke of his pride for his own children's participation in athletics.

"My kids feel special to be involved in one sport," he shared, noting that they probably don't work as hard as a six-sport athlete like Noah.

At that point, Williams challenged the crowd to raise $1,000 for the Challenger Program while he made his opening remarks. ESHS cheerleaders and other students on hand then grabbed autographed football and batting helmets that were to be sold in the benefit auction later in the evening. The Tigers quickly went through the crowd in search of people who would fill the helmets with donations. Noah was also given a hat and people from the crowd quickly formed a line to donate to the cause. About 20 minutes later, an overwhelmed and appreciative Coach Williams announced that well over $1,000 had been collected (in fact, the final count was $3,300).

The crowd broke out in applause as tears filled the eyes of many.

"Noah has seen crowds cheer and applaud for his older brother (Andy Morris - who is involved in baseball and drama at ESHS)," said Christy, who is thrilled that her younger son has now experienced that same kind of supportive applause. "It was so nice to see such concern for families in our situation. It's wonderful to see people who want to do the right thing. We just can't say 'thank you' enough!"

As for Noah, he "feels swell" about his experience. He admits that he was "a little nervous at first" when asked if he would like to introduce Coach Williams that night.

"But then I got excited," said Noah, who would like to play quarterback someday like Williams. "I'm a number-one fan of sports!"

"The Challenger Program is a wonderful opportunity for so many kids," concluded Noah's father, Marty. "These kids are often overlooked, but they still want to participate and do what everyone else does. It also gives parents the ability to network, brainstorm and support each other."

When asked how he felt about the community's outpouring of support during the 'passing of the hats' at the Classic's closing ceremonies, Marty was literally overwhelmed and speechless with appreciation.
"Noah represents all of our students and others in the area who need the Challenger Program," concluded Hall. "He was in the limelight that night, but he represents a lot of other people."

The money donated by the Gregg Williams Foundation, along with the $3,300 collected that night, will be used to provide scholarships to help send area disabled children to the Challenger program and/or to lend support toward the cost of the Challenger's sports complex that is now in the planning stages. Anyone who is interested in donating money or volunteering time to the program can contact Christy at 630-0401.

Readers are reminded once again of the now-familiar motto of the Tiger Classic that was so richly demonstrated recently through the selfless heart of this community: If you can, you should!

Furthermore, we should each pay close attention to the stellar example set by a very special member of our community - someone who understands the true meaning behind those words more deeply than most. He's a six-sport athlete named Noah!

Good luck Gregg and the Saints… Noah and the rest of Excelsior Springs will be cheering.

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