Carmel Valley resident leads non-profit that provides sports programs for children and adults with physical disabilities

By Karen Billing

Carmel Valley resident Jon Richards strongly believes in one’s ability to adapt and the importance in everyone being included.

Richards is the executive director of the local non-profit the Adaptive Sports and Recreation Association (ASRA), which provides programs for children and adults with physical disabilities in San Diego — allowing them the chance to be inspired, empowered and thrive through sports.

“I grew up playing sports and being very active so this was my opportunity to give back,” said Richards, who has been with ASRA for three and a half years, coming from the Special Olympics organization. “I saw that there was a group of people who weren’t given the same opportunities that I had and it become a passion of mine.”

ASRA was founded in 2006 with a variety of year-round leagues, camps and clinics serving over 300 athletes. ASRA recently underwent a re-branding and were formerly known as the San Diego Adaptive Sports Foundation.

In 2006, ASRA broke off as a non-profit from the city’s parks and recreation department so some of the programs it runs are 27 years old, taken over from the city. Richards said ASRA still works closely with the city and it co-sponsors some activities.

ASRA has only three staff members and relies heavily on its volunteers — about 700 people give their time to ASRA.

Richards said ASRA is unique in that participants as young as 4 years old can join and there is no upper age limit. ASRA offers wheelchair basketball, rugby, soccer, adaptive cycling and it recently started a paratriathlon program.

The most popular sport ASRA runs is wheelchair basketball. ASRA has 10 teams in San Diego, with players from all over the county in different levels and skills.

ASRA helps players by providing specialized sports chairs that are different from ADA- compliant chairs. These specialized chairs can run $2,500 to $3,500 and athletes can outgrow them as they get older, like shoes.

“We provide equipment for them to get excited and to be able to participate immediately,” Richards said.

Once an athlete continues on or gets more serious about a sport they may opt to get their own chairs.

ASRA also works with the local population of injured service members and has done special programs and clinics with them. Recently they teamed up with the U.S. Paralympics team and did a military sports camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista.

Since 1987, ASRA has run a very popular five-day Junior Wheelchair Sports Camp that people travel from all over the country to attend. The camp has about 70 campers ages 4-18 and they get to play and participate in all kinds of sports and activities. They play sports such as rugby, tennis, and golf, and get to go snorkeling, swimming and kayaking in Mission Bay.

Richards and ASRA believe that they can offer an adaptation for every activity, the fun part is figuring it out, customizing things to each individual’s needs.

“Sometimes it’s just being creative,” Richards said. “The most important thing with it is that you’re creating the least restrictive environment, that they’re still able to put in the effort. You don’t want to overcompensate because you want them to have as much of the experience as they can have.”

The coolest experience for Richards is seeing someone get involved for the first time, whether they’re 4 or a 24 year old who recently had a traumatic accident.

“You’d be surprised how many people don’t get to go to the beach because of accessibility. We program a beach day and make it completely accessible,” Richards said. “Getting someone involved, it’s a life-changing experience for them.”

One of Richards’ favorite success stories happened recently with a 21-year-old college soccer player who was on scholarship in Denver when she broke her back and was paralyzed. She came to ASRA and picked up wheelchair basketball and her talents in the sport were quickly realized and rewarded — within two months the University of Arizona recruited her and gave her a scholarship on its wheelchair basketball team.

ASRA continues to look toward the future, Richards said, continuing to grow and providing programs at all different levels. Richards thinks of one 9 year old who, for the last five years, comes three hours from Mexicali to play basketball because there are no programs near him.

“That’s how powerful the programs are for the kids,” Richards said.

“We know there’s a lot more we can do.”

For more information on ASRA, visit

www.adaptivesportsandrec.org.

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