Conquering Curiosity Through Physical Education

By Amy Stahl

A tearful phone call from a parent in 2007 was the impetus Emily Kovarik needed to launch Idaho’s Boise Parks & Recreation’s Ability Team. “A mom called me because a PE teacher didn’t know what to do with her first-grade son in a wheelchair,” Kovarik says. “Her son’s job was to hold a clipboard and count how many times other kids ran around the asphalt playground.”


As the city’s Adaptive Recreation Coordinator, Kovarik knew she had an opportunity to help, so she worked with a local wheelchair athlete to create a free school assembly program that uses sports to educate teachers and kids about disabilities.

Uncertain whether school administrators would be receptive to the idea, Kovarik was pleased to learn that Shadow Hills Elementary School Principal Brett Forrey approved of her plan.

The Ability Team assemblies are offered in school gyms and cafeterias in a high-energy 45- to 60-minute format. Up to four team members provide testimonials, demonstrate basketball and tennis skills, explain adaptive equipment, and answer questions from kids and teachers. To the delight of the students, the athletes also face off with teachers in a rousing game of wheelchair basketball.

Questions With Answers
Program goals include:

  • Increasing awareness about disabilities
  • Eliminating negative stereotypes
  • Promoting acceptance by fostering positive attitudes toward individuals with disabilities.

Kovarik says that the Ability Team illustrates that individuals with disabilities are capable of achieving the same goals as those without disabilities.

In many cases, the assemblies provide a comfortable setting for inquisitive children who may not have met a person with a disability. “I don’t think these kids have been able to ask questions and talk to someone in a wheelchair,” says Kovarik.

Costs And Supplies
In 2011 and 2012, the parks and recreation department offered five assemblies reaching 1,904 elementary and junior-high students at a cost of $1,500.

Ability Team athletes are paid $50 per session, with funding provided by private donations. Kovarik coordinates fundraisers and writes requests to foundations. In 2012, she received a $1,000 grant from Idaho Power. Occasionally, a school sends an unsolicited contribution with funds raised from bake sales or other fundraisers.

While the athletes provide their own wheelchairs, the parks department supplies five wheelchairs for the teacher vs. team basketball game.

Although the free assemblies take place in school facilities where basketball hoops are available on Fridays during the school year, Kovarik believes the program reaches beyond the schoolhouse doors. “We educate the staff, the kids, and some of the parents because the kids go home and talk about what they learned.”

Administrators and teachers have become enthusiastic cheerleaders as well. More than 30 public and private schools have signed up to host assemblies, and several schools have brought the team back multiple times. “This was such a wonderful message for our students to hear, and I know that they have a much better understanding of people with disabilities,” says Principal Julie Robideaux Prince of SummerwindElementary School.

A teacher at Shadow Hills Elementary says, “This assembly made my students want to know more about others with disabilities in our school.”

Adding On
In the future, Kovarik may add an obstacle course requiring teachers to wheel over a rope or curb, up and down a ramp, and around cones. Lacey Heward, a Paralympic skier and a past participant on the Ability Team, believes the obstacle course could be a great tool to build awareness and get kids thinking about deeper questions.

While the teachers tackled the obstacle course, team members could explain the challenges and why it's important to have accessibility. Then the team could do the obstacle course and explain that “We all have to adapt to our environment, and it takes courage and determination to get through the obstacles in life,” says Heward.

The program format has been tweaked over time to make a lasting impression on the students. “What they learn is life skills, how to treat people with respect, and perseverance,” she says.

Whether it’s the personal stories of the wheelchair athletes or the fast-paced and fun wheelchair basketball game with the teachers, kids seem to hear the message loudly and clearly. “Thank you for showing us that even when hard times are here, we should not give up and that we can do anything no matter how hard if we set our minds to it,” says a Boise fifth-grader. “By the way, I love tennis. Hmm, I guess we do [have] some things in common.”

For information about the adaptive recreation program and the Ability Team, contact Emily Kovarik at or (208) 608-7687.

A former newspaper editor and reporter, Amy Stahl is the marketing and community relations manager for Boise Parks & Recreation. Reach her at .