Ainsley's Angels: Turning Dreams into Reality for Those with Special Needs
Ainsley's Angels pairs 'Athlete Riders' with 'Angel Runners' so children and adults with special needs can experience the joy of competitive running.
The anticipation of gearing up for a race or sporting event and the excitement of competing is a joy that many parents have experienced at some point in life, whether as a participant in a competition or as a supportive parent of an active child. But for many children and adults with special needs, the idea of competing has been relegated to a dream—until now. In 2017, Tulsa became home to a chapter of Ainsley’s Angels, a national organization that provides opportunities for those with special needs to participate as athletes in local races.
The Tulsa chapter is one of 60 chapters in 30 states, all working to support the organization’s mission to ensure “everyone can experience endurance sports while building awareness about inclusion for people with special needs,” said Jana Rugg, Ainsley’s Angels ambassador for the Tulsa area. Together, Ainsley’s Angels and its volunteers make this goal a reality by providing race chairs for Athlete Riders, runners to push them and others to help with the many tasks that make race participation possible for those with special needs.
Being a part of Ainsley’s Angels means so much to Athlete Riders and their families.
AJ, a 14-year-old Athlete Rider, loves “going fast and crossing the finish line … and getting my bib and medal, just like my family.”
His mom, Laura, says Ainsley’s Angels makes it possible for everyone in their family to enjoy running together. “My husband and our three other teenagers all enjoy running but one of us always had to sit on the sidelines with AJ at races. This has given us all the opportunity to enjoy the run.”
Since becoming involved with Ainsley’s Angels, Jennifer says her 8-year-old son Izzick is “more outgoing and loves meeting new people and making lifelong friends.”
Seventeen-year-old Annie always looks forward to race days. “I love to cheer other people on as we go past. I enjoy getting medals and hanging them in my room.” Annie’s mom, Adele, says the inclusion and community involvement have been great for Annie and their entire family. “Ever since we learned our daughter would have challenges, we have been passionate about finding ways to ensure she can still live life to her full potential and be physically and socially engaged wherever possible.”
Rugg says Ainsley’s Angels loves welcoming new Athlete Riders into the fold. “Anyone who is unable to run due to a physical or intellectual disability is eligible to be an Athlete Rider. We have Athlete Riders from age 4 and up!”
Of course, crossing the finish line wouldn’t be possible without Angel Runners, who love having the opportunity to turn a shared hobby into joy for those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to experience it. Many of them have found more satisfaction in running with Ainsley’s Angels than they did in running alone.
Rugg, who is also an Angel Runner, said, “The smiles and squeals from the riders are just incredible. The glow on their faces when they hear their name shouted out by other riders and spectators, and sharing the excitement of receiving a medal at the finish line—it is just indescribable!”
Laura, another Angel Runner, explained how her running burnout ended when she began running with Ainsley’s Angels. “Someone asked if I wanted to do a race that I had done several times, but for a good cause. They needed runners to push a wheelchair athlete. That, in and of itself seemed like a great reason to run, but it was seeing these athletes’ faces doing their first EVER race…the excitement and the fears…of the people and noises at the beginning…and then seeing the pure happiness, and joy, and transformation on their faces as everyone was cheering them on as they crossed the finish line and got a medal, that just broke my heart open into a million pieces.”
For Susan, everything was put into perspective when an Athlete Rider explained “how we, the runners, were his legs and how he imagined what it would actually feel like to run. His comment brought tears to my eyes. If I’m able to give someone that feeling, by all means, count me in!”
Anyone who is interested in becoming an Angel Runner is welcome to join. This is also a great opportunity for siblings of Angel Riders to be part of the fun. Angel Runners don’t have to be well-seasoned runners or professional athletes; they just need to have a heart for helping others and a will to get to the finish line.
For those who prefer not to run but would still like to get involved, Rugg suggests becoming a Guardian Angel. These essential volunteers help make sure Athlete Riders are properly secured and comfortable in their chairs, take photos and videos at races, as well as assist with community outreach projects.
As a nonprofit organization, Ainsley’s Angels relies on volunteers and donations to make its mission possible. Currently, the organization has a need for more race chairs for the growing number of Athlete Riders. Chair sponsorships are available and donations of any amount are appreciated. For more information, contact Rugg at Tulsa@ainsleysangels.org.