Difference Makers: Luke Sims & RallyCap Sports
July is Disability Pride Month in New York City, and this past Sunday marked the 30th anniversary of the American with Disabilities Act. This is a time to recognize the progress we’ve made for people with disabilities, acknowledge how much more needs to be done, and most importantly: celebrate athletes with disabilities and those who make sports inclusive for all!
At LeagueApps, one of our core beliefs is that amazing sports experiences should be accessible to all kids – regardless of their zipcode, income, race or ethnicity, ability, or other types of differences.
We were thrilled to sit down with Luke Sims, Executive Director of our longtime FundPlay partner RallyCap Sports, to contribute to the Difference Maker Blog Series. Luke helps us understand how RallyCap is making a difference not just in the lives of the athletes with disabilities that they serve — but every person who works or volunteers at RallyCap. Read on to learn how you can make your program more inclusive for athletes with disabilities.
Luke, you’ve been at Rally Cap Sports for five years. What is your personal mission? Why do you do what you do?
Luke Sims: Let me give you a bit of background as to how I got involved with RallyCap Sports. I was a junior at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, studying marketing and entrepreneurship, when I was matched up with an alum, Paul Hooker. Paul had started this organization many years ago in New Jersey that provided local kids with special needs a recreational sports league. We connected over our shared beliefs and passions, and I pitched him an idea to expand his program throughout colleges and universities across the country — to impact more lives. He loved it and brought me on as an intern for my senior year, to rebrand and launch the first expansion chapter right there at BGSU and see what we had. The launch went awesome and other universities started reaching out, and the rest is history.
The truth is, I never had any specific calling to work with the special needs community. I simply saw an opportunity to impact a lot of lives in a positive way and I took a step in that direction. Then, step after step, I found myself right smack dab in the middle of what I wanted my life to be about – helping people with special needs find joy through the power of sports.
We think you’re a difference maker. You are changing lives, disrupting the status quo, and providing opportunities for people who might not have the experiences and the relationships RallyCap helps facilitate. What does being a difference maker mean to you?
Luke Sims: I always felt that I was placed on this earth to be a difference maker. However, I’ve also always dealt with the little man in my head that says I’m not smart enough or not good enough to really do anything on a macro scale. I came from a small high school, a fairly small town, it felt my life might be destined for a small impact.
To be considered a “difference maker” means the world to me. All I’ve ever wanted was to positively impact others, so that they can experience the joy of life. I don’t wake up every day thinking I’m some cool “disrupter” or “difference maker,” I think I’m a normal guy that saw an issue in the community and took that call to action.
We imagine at RallyCap there are lots of difference makers working hard every day. Who are they?
Luke Sims: The Founder of RallyCap Sports, Paul J. Hooker, and his wife, Margo, are certainly difference makers. The story of how RallyCap Sports was started illustrates that:
When Paul Hooker was coaching a Little League Baseball team one day in 1990, he turned to a little girl in a wheelchair and asked her how she was doing. Frustrated with watching from the sidelines as her brother played, the little girl replied, “this stinks.” That two-word answer sparked a mission to create a program that would enable children and young adults of all abilities to enjoy and participate in sports. Driven by this newfound philosophy, Paul and his wife Margo began a grass-roots softball league near their hometown in Central New Jersey called Challenged Youth Sports. Over the years, the small league grew from a single-sport season to a year-round organization with nearly a dozen sports, impacting hundreds of families in the region. Challenged Youth Sports then became RallyCap Sports and has since expanded to 19 universities across eight states, impacting thousands.
Paul is a difference maker because when he saw a need in his community, when he saw something that was not right, he did not just stand there and let it go. If we all lived life like that, our communities would be better. We need people like Paul and Margo, who just won’t let another day pass where something in the community is not quite right.
The “little girl” from our start-up story is also one of the major difference makers in RallyCap. Nicole Bongiolatti passed away about a month ago. Nicole was the “little girl” with spina bifida, who was confined to a wheelchair but felt she deserved to play baseball, too. Of course she was right, and her courage and inspiration is why RallyCap Sports was started over 30 years ago. Her blunt, tough courage is what has led to thousands of people being impacted. Nicole was an amazing woman, and will forever be the inspiration of this organization.
That is an incredibly touching story. We know Nicole’s legacy will live on in all the games, leagues, and programming at RallyCap.
It’s Disability Pride Month, but I bet Disability Pride is every day at Rally Cap! Do you do anything different to celebrate your athletes this month?
Luke Sims: You hit the nail on the head — it’s disability pride at RallyCap every day! We try not to get too caught up in the special days and months that are allocated to people with special needs because we believe people with special needs should be a seamless part of our community. Our vision is for Disability Pride Month to not be necessary because our community has come to love and accept all people, of all abilities. Yes, we certainly do a bit of social media highlighting of our athletes and volunteers, but we try to do that all the time.
How do you recommend others, outside of your organization, celebrate Disability Pride Month?
Luke Sims: We strongly believe that this world would be a different place if we all learned how to open our hearts to people of all abilities. So, yes, celebrate people with disabilities this month, but celebrate them every month. They are amazing people, with value and skills and hearts of gold. They are just as important as every other human being in our community and they deserve every right and every opportunity we all receive. Let’s all work together to see that happen!
We think Disability Pride Month is a chance to bring awareness around the disability community and, of course, to share prideful stories and celebrate! What are common misconceptions about working with athletes with disabilities that you’d want to clear up for any readers?
Luke Sims: That they are not “capable.” Our RallyPlayers are amazing in so many ways. It may be more difficult for a RallyPlayer in a wheelchair to score a soccer goal, but that RallyPlayer is capable of incredible things if we are willing to give that opportunity. Bound to a wheelchair, that RallyPlayer may have empathy for others that many of us will never possess, or courage to do new things that some of us will never garner. People with special needs are capable of all things, are valuable to this community, are amazing people with talents and gifts that would blow you away if you give them the time of day.
What advice do you have for youth sports organizers looking to begin programs for kids with disabilities? What tips do you have? Where should they start?
Luke Sims: My advice would be: it’s not rocket science. I think many groups would love to start special sports opportunities for local kids with special needs, but are frozen by thinking the sport needs to be complicated. We’ve learned, these kids with special needs just want to be treated like everyone else. They want the tough love of a football coach yelling at them to sprint harder, they want to sweat and the tears and all the amazing things that come along with sports. You don’t need to design an entirely different practice or game for people with special needs.
You just have to have patience and kindness, and a willingness to bring energy and passion to the group and see what happens. You’ll be amazed what these kids can do, what they can pick up quickly, and the attitude they will have with it. Just do it. Start a sport for kids with special needs and have your able-bodied youth help out. That’s all there is to it. Just do it and go with the flow. Stop overthinking it!
Thanks to Luke for taking the time to chat with us and share your insights. Please join the conversation on equity and inclusion in Slack, and consider making a donation to RallyCap to support their free programs.