Sports program at Kennedy Kreiger gets physically disabled kids saying "I can" to any sport

Posted at 6:27 PM, Mar 20, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-20 18:27:25-04

"You got it, you got it!"

"Push, push Olive!"

All you'll ever hear come out of Gwena Herman's mouth is words of praise and encouragement.

The one word you'll never hear is can't.

"We don't say that word can't because anything is possible," said Herman.

Herman knows kids with physical disabilities hear the words "you can't" too often. It's why she co-founded the Physically Challenged Sports and Recreation program at Kennedy Krieger almost 30 years ago.

"Sports just helps build confidence, self esteem and it just makes them feel good about themselves," said Herman. "And you want all kids to have that opportunity."

Sisters Willow Weidenhammer, 8, and Olive Weidenhammer, 4, both have spina bifida and are mostly confined to a wheelchair. Their mom, Elizabeth Weidenhammer, says her girls use to be terrified of the pool, until they met Herman.

"Now Willow just completed her first lap without any assistance," said Weidenhammer. "It’s a really big deal for them to be able to participate with other kids cause that’s definitely something we’ve never done."

Conner Cleary, 5, had a stroke at birth, affecting the right side of his body. It doesn't slow him down when he's doing sports like baseball and basketball. He proudly admits he can swim faster than his older brother and his mom sees his competitiveness as a positive.

"He’s very confident in himself, how fast he goes, what he can do and keeping up with his big brother and the neighborhood kids," said Barbara Cleary.

Herman's athletes, known as the Bennett Blazers, range in age and skill level. Several go on to compete in the Paralympics, the most famous "Blazer" being wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden.

"It’s nice to see them succeed at life and that’s what we want here. We want to build up that confidence so they know they can go out and tackle anything in the world," said Herman.

There is one thing Herman can't do, and that is to stop caring about her kids and the work she does with them every day.

"Each one of these kids has a special place in my heart."

The Bennett Blazers have two championship games coming up at the end of March and early April. One is a basketball tournament in Louisville, the other is an ice hockey championship in San Jose. They are the defending national champs!


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