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  • Kim Piekos

GLASA Celebrates 25 Years of Making Sports Accessible to Disabled

By Kim Piekos

Do what you love and the rest will follow, so they say. That wisdom has certainly played out in the work of Cindy Housner, founder and executive director of the Lake Forest-based Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association (GLASA).

Her commitment over the past 25 years to providing adaptive sports opportunities for the disabled has grown GLASA from working with three local para-athletes at the beginning to nearly 1,000 in the Great Lakes region each year.

GLASA offers opportunities to participate in 20 recreational and competitive sports, including but not limited to track and field, sled hockey, wheelchair tennis, swim, wheelchair basketball, para pickleball, football, and powerlifting.

“I am super passionate about adaptive sports,” she said. “What we do is much more powerful than just sports. We change lives.”

Housner was introduced to adaptive sports early in her career when she coached a female high school para-athlete in track who went on to compete at the Paralympic level and win the Boston Marathon.

“I witnessed her blossom from a shy girl into this incredibly confident, accomplished young woman,” Housner remembered. “Since then, it’s been my life’s work.”

After serving as the director of the National Wheelchair Athletic Association in Colorado Springs, Colo., Housner relocated to this area and noticed a significant lack of opportunities for disabled individuals to get involved in sports.

“I started working with three athletes in wheelchair track as Lake County Adaptive Sports, and we expanded geographically from there as word spread,” she said.

Athletes at GLASA range in age from preschool through veterans in their 80s, some with congenital disabilities and others injured in accidents. Many learn of GLASA via medical referrals at rehabilitation organizations such as Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, through athletic directors at colleges and area school coaches and via social media and marketing. Word of mouth helps, too.

“I stop people on the street I see that might benefit from GLASA’s work, tell them about it and invite them to meet with us,” Housner noted. “Once we meet and they experience the relationship they develop with a coach, mentor or staff member, they get hooked.”

Housner acknowledged that when people are newly injured, they may have trouble comprehending why they would choose to participate in sports after a traumatic experience.

“Many times, there may be apprehension with individuals who have a new injury as their world is turned upside down,” she said. “The peer mentoring from other para-athletes makes all the difference. They learn it’s possible to have fun again in a sport despite their disability.”

GLASA offers opportunities to participate in 20 recreational and competitive sports, including but not limited to track and field, sled hockey, wheelchair tennis, swim, wheelchair basketball, para pickleball, football, and powerlifting. With participants willing to travel up to three hours for training, GLASA arranges meeting sites and provides coaches and mentors in centrally located places when there is not duplication of services from other organizations that may do similar work.

“The organizations that work in this arena often make referrals to each other depending on what we each offer,” she explained. “We’re all here to support our athletes.”

Each year, GLASA hosts the Great Lakes Games where it brings together para-athletes from across the country. In 2024, the Games take place June 13-16. GLASA has athletes training for the 2024 Paralympics in Paris and the 2028 Games in Los Angeles.

“Many people find they enjoy training and competing at the elite level,” Housner said. “Right now, we have six athletes competing in track in Thailand. It’s very exciting not only to watch them accomplish so much but to watch their worlds and belief in themselves expand exponentially.”

Coaching para-athletes has proven a satisfying endeavor.

“Coaching GLASA’s sled hockey team has been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done,” said Lake Forest coach Michael Reinhardt, who has been involved since 2015. “When you realize many of them travel over an hour to practice each week, you see the dedication. They want to be treated like any other athlete. Being on a sports team help the athletes grow as a person and a community.”

Lake Forest resident Andy Burkhart, a GLASA sled hockey coach, parent and former board member, cites his passion for the sport and desire to provide this opportunity to “differently-abled” athletes.

“I enjoy creating excitement, developing the athletes and bonding with them, sharing in the sense of team goals and objectives and celebrating good wins and commiserating tough losses,” he said.

In addition to coaching, GLASA measures and fits athletes with adaptive equipment they need for their sport and provides information for them about how to pursue higher levels of competition if that is part of their journey.

“We meet them where they are in every respect and provide them with what they need at each step,” Housner stated.

First housed at Gorton Center, GLASA operates today out of a two-bay, two-story garage and a small attached office in northwest Lake Forest where it houses equipment and offers space for strength conditioning. The facility is not fully accessible to the upstairs storage area.

“One of our goals with this 25th anniversary celebration is to identify and fund dedicated, fully accessible space where we can offer comprehensive training facilities, ample storage for adaptive equipment and office space,” explained Housner. “We are positioning ourselves to make sure we have the infrastructure and the resources so that we can address the growing need for adaptive and para-sports.”

Housner is grateful to have GLASA located in Lake Forest.

“We have received amazing support from the community of Lake Forest from the beginning,” she explained. “The people here are generous with their time, talent and treasure.”

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