By Kyle LoJacono
Like many people new to an area, Carol Novak spent months looking for the right church for her family, but faith was not the only reason her quest was difficult.
Novak’s son Jonathan has severe cerebral palsy and needs a power wheelchair to get around. She wanted to find a church that would accept Jonathan and her search brought her to Van Dyke United Methodist Church in Lutz.
“When we came the first time his wheelchair didn’t throw them,” Novak said. “They welcomed him like any other new member.”
The Novaks have been members of the church for eight years, but the last three have offered even more for Jonathan. That was when Janet Atkinson started the adaptive basketball program, which is each Sunday from 2-4 p.m. at the church’s community center gym, 17030 Lakeshore Road off Van Dyke Road.
“My son (Taylor) wanted something like this and our church is so good with people with special needs,” Atkinson said. “What is really good about the basketball program is it isn’t just for young kids. We have people in their 30s right now playing.”
Novak said that was one of the hardest things for Jonathan, who does not communicate easily, was finding activities after he graduated from high school. Jonathan is currently 34 years old and goes to the league almost every week.
“I live in Clearwater now, but we make the drive to pick up Jonathan each week and take him to the church and basketball,” Novak said. “It takes about an hour, but it’s worth it.”
Jonathan lives in northern Hillsborough County with an aide who helps him get around.
Atkinson said there are anywhere from 15-30 athletes who come to the league each Sunday, which is free to participate in. The players are of various levels of special needs and come from across Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties.
“It is only for fun, but you will see some of the kids get competitive,” Atkinson said. “As a mom, I see it as what I would pay big bucks for and that is physical therapy and social therapy. It’s also a good time for the parents that stick around for support with each other too.”
Eric Fleat is the program’s coach and gets a thrill out of seeing the athletes play each week.
“You should see those kids’ faces when they are out there,” Fleat said. “They’re just like any other kid having a great time.”
Fleat’s wife Shannon helps with the program and also brings crafts for the kids to work on when they are not in the game.
The program is part of the church’s special needs ministry.
“Matthew Hartsfield is the pastor for (the) church and has supported me for 16 years through all things special needs and whatever he can do to support the community,” Atkinson said. “The church is so supportive to those with special needs, so if I need crafts or snacks or whatever I need, they will supply it.”
Novak said Jonathan has been helped greatly by the ministry.
“He has been a greeter for the last few years and it helps him be more social even though he doesn’t communicate very well,” Novak said. “It isn’t strange to anyone that he is greeting them because the church is so welcoming to people with special needs.”
People do not need to be members of the church to participate in the league. Anyone interested in playing can show up any Sunday or can call Atkinson at (813) 240-5218.