SPORTING HAND – How sport can help children with special needs

sporting hand

ll kids can benefit from the good exercise, social interaction and enjoyment of the pure energy release that is sport, and this includes children with special needs.

Parents or guardians sometimes don’t encourage children with special needs to exercise because of their fear that they’ll be hurt. Physical activity, however, is as important for special needs children, as it is for any child. A sense of self-confidence can be discovered as well as a development in relationship skills and working as part of a team, and it can help with weight management, a common problem amongst today’s kids.

GibMag_August2016 small_Page_039_Image_0001Akhil Viz is a Gibraltarian aerospace engineer, pilot and triathlete with a passion for helping children who may need that extra little push towards success, however big or small that success may be. Now involved in a social impact and social enterprises project in San Francisco to help children with special needs, Akhil took some time to chat about the ProAktiv Events project that will allow these children to reach for the stars.

M: Why did you decide to make the move to the States? 

Akhil: During my time as an Aerospace Engineer in the UK for over three years, I came across the concept of social impact and social enterprises. These are ‘for-profit’ businesses that have a social cause attached to their core. As I found out more about how such businesses establish themselves and operate, I began to brainstorm as to how I could use the skills I had acquired as an engineer and combine it with my passion for sport to up-start my own social enterprise. I realised that coming from a technical background with basic business experience and knowledge, I would need to learn the theoretical concepts of business administration. Therefore, about eighteen months ago, I began looking into MBA programs specifically in San Francisco because of its close vicinity to Silicon Valley, known as the mecca for start-ups, and due to the vibrant sports and outdoors culture. 

M: Describe your course and what you aim to do with it looking ahead.

Akhil: As with all MBA programs, you will learn the hard skills such as Accounting, Operations, Finance, Strategy etc. But what is unique about Hult International Business School is the Leadership Program. This has provided me with a new outlook into how to build and lead successful teams. Every aspect of life involves participating and communicating with other people. Therefore, being able to adapt my leadership style but still be authentic is the most critical skill I’ve learnt. 

ProAktiv Events was launched through a project known as the Hult Impact Challenge (HIC) during which we learnt the principles of Design Thinking and Human Cantered Design in order to define the business concept and test it among our customers. Through the HIC I met my co-founder, Sibylle Hallstein, who is from Germany and has over seven years Product Management and Marketing experience. She is also an avid runner and shares the same values of aspiring to empower people within our community through the means of sport.

M: Why was it that you became interested in helping children with special needs through sport?

Akhil: My sister, Meenal Viz, who is studying Medicine in Hradec Kralove in Czech Republic, informed me of an organisation called Running With Those That Can’t (RWTTC). This organisation partners with large running events in the country to enable typical athletes to push a child in a wheelchair. It is a win-win situation for both the typical runner and the child with the disability. The typical runner attains a sense of gratification by helping the child experience the emotions of crossing the finish line of a race. Using the work that RWTTC has been doing, ProAktiv Events used this as a starting point to establish itself. The vision of ProAktiv Events is to host sports events in order to redefine inclusiveness and eliminate boundaries that exist within our community. Our mission is to form teams of people with and without special needs to compete as a team in sports events. In the long term, we wish to address as many disabilities as possible in as many different types of sports as possible.

M: How far does sport go to help children with special needs feel a sense of achievement and then spur them onto greater things? 

Akhil: After performing market research and getting further insight into the lives of people with special needs, we learnt that they too want to lead and live active lifestyles. They want to get involved in recreational events but usually face barriers that stop them from participating. Sibylle and I have been getting involved in the activities organised by a local organisation called Bay Area Outreach & Recreation Program (BORP) to gain better insight into the lives of people with special needs and their interaction with sports and recreation.  

On the other hand, we also learned that the disabled are also very vulnerable. People step in and out of their lives all the time, sometimes with little, if any, emotion. For example, a runner may target to run the London Marathon and may decide to raise funds for, let’s say Great Ormond Street Hospital. The runner will promote the charity and get involved up until he/she has run the marathon. Once it’s over, it occasionally happens that the runner no longer continues supporting that charity. That can leave people very disillusioned. Therefore, to address this issue, we, at ProAktiv Events, want to incorporate a ‘mentorship’ program whereby the mixed teams be formed a few months before our event. During the preceding months, we will organise ‘Meet & Greet’ sessions, and training sessions for the teams to practise before the event. The purpose of this is to build long term relationship through teamwork activities. 

M: Could you give some personal stories of individuals you have worked with? 

Akhil: Sibylle and I played wheelchair basketball as part of BORP’s activities and we spoke to a number of the participants who told of their personal stories which made us realise some of the hardship people with special needs face. For example, the necessity to own an additional wheelchair to participate in a particular sport and the associated cost. In addition, there aren’t many programs that bring typical people and people with special needs together. These moments further motivate Sibylle and me to continue thriving for our vision with ProAktiv Events. 

M: How long was it before you got involved in the local triathlon scene? 

Akhil: In fact, before relocating I was already researching into the triathlon clubs and activities in San Francisco and the Bay Area. I knew that triathlon is very popular and that I would find myself mingling with other like-minded individuals. Through the sport, I’ve made some amazing friends and have witnessed some of the most beautiful scenery in California. Part of the experience has also been going through the San Franciscan summer which is cold, foggy and windy! Mark Twain once said; “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco”!

M: What’s the next project you are working on?

Akhil: Currently, ProAktiv Events is in the very early stages of establishing itself as a social enterprise. We are therefore testing and prototyping the concept of both the mentorship program and business model. Our first prototype event is called The Impact Run where we have partnered with several organizations such as United Cerebral Palsy and Muscular Dystrophy Association to support us on our journey. 

In order to start the venture, we are looking for investors and/or philanthropists who would be keen to financially support us in order to achieve our long term vision and put a big a smile on these children’s faces as possible.