ODU Grad Student Works to Give Disabled Kids a Chance at Sports

Written by Alison Johnson

Jessica Klamut went to college on a soccer scholarship, played basketball throughout high school and grew up in a family of runners.

In other words, Klamut is a gifted athlete. But alongside the kids in Old Dominion University’s adapted sports program — Mighty Monarchs — she often struggles. She regularly shoots airballs in wheelchair basketball and still can’t hit a pitched ball in beep baseball, a game for the visually impaired. 

“It’s eye-opening, how difficult it can be to play with a disability,” Klamut says. “But if we can provide these kids with recreation opportunities that they thought they could never do, it changes them. Some start crying, they’re so happy. Or they’ll cry because they don’t want to stop playing and go home.” 

Klamut, 25, is in charge of daily operations for Mighty Monarchs, a program founded in 2017 by two faculty members in the Norfolk, Va., university’s Department of Human Movement Sciences. As a graduate student, Klamut is working toward a master’s degree in parks, recreation and tourism management with a goal of running a nonprofit sports program or working for the Paralympics, a major, multi-sport event for the disabled.

Mighty Monarchs targets kids ages 5 to 17 with visual impairments or physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida or missing limbs. Sports include wheelchair basketball and rugby, seated volleyball, tennis, hockey, bowling, judo and “goalball,” in which one team pitches balls with bells while the other tries to block the balls from going into a goal. Games are held certain Saturdays during the school year; between 10 and 18 families typically attend, with some participants as young as 3.

The Mighty Monarchs leadership team also includes faculty co-founders Betsy Kennedy and Justin Haegele and graduate student Nicole Kirk, along with plenty of undergraduate therapeutic recreation and physical education students who serve as coaches. 

Klamut, who grew up in Virginia Beach, majored in parks, recreation and tourism studies, with an emphasis in therapeutic recreation, as an undergraduate at ODU. She played soccer all four years — at least until she tore her anterior cruciate ligament with five minutes to go in her final game.

As part of her studies, Klamut completed a 560-hour internship in adapted programming at the Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation Department in Florida. “I fell in love,” she recalls. “Just the emotions of the athletes, and the sense of community where everybody cheers for everybody, is so rewarding.” 

Klamut lived in Florida for three years after graduation, where she worked at a rehabilitation hospital with a busy adapted sports program that offered everything from golf and archery to surfing and waterskiing. She took over Mighty Monarchs in spring 2018 and is open to staying on and expanding the program into a multi-sport nonprofit after she finishes her degree, which should be in late 2019. 

Each semester, Klamut plans drills and games with input from the kids. She also is responsible for communicating with parents, distributing information to schools and medical centers, coordinating marketing efforts, doing safety inspections on sports chairs and other equipment, partnering with local vendors and nonprofits, and lining up Old Dominion athletes to volunteer with the kids.

Parents in the program say Klamut’s energy and passion are infectious. Erin Quimby of Chesapeake has watched her 12-year-old son, Mason, embrace wheelchair basketball, bond with teammates and become more active and adventurous in general.

At Mighty Monarchs, he gets to just be himself, and just be a kid and let loose and have fun, which means an enormous amount to him,”

Quimby says of Mason, who has osteogenesis imperfecta, a brittle bone disorder that causes frequent fractures. He was born with more than 10 breaks and uses a wheelchair full-time.

Klamut, Quimby adds, “truly cares about the kids and their quality of life. She wants them to be as independent as possible, and she’s not afraid to get in a chair herself and play with them. She’s very hands-on.”

Indeed, Klamut loves all of the adapted sports, with a particular fondness for wheelchair rugby. “It’s so fun to get rough and slam into other people, and also not really have to worry about how to stop the chair,” she laughs.    

As for recruiting more kids, Klamut jokes that she can be a bit of a community stalker: “I was just at a Starbucks and happened to see a kid in a wheelchair. I didn’t want to go up to him and totally freak him out, but I did go right up to his mom. If I see these families out in public, I’m not going to let them go without telling them about what we do.” 

Off-campus, Klamut also is active in her church and enjoys hiking, rock climbing, crafting and painting. She’s all about exploring new activities — and helping her Mighty Monarchs athletes do the same.

“If there is some form of recreation that someone is interested in, we will look for a way to adapt it,” she says. “These kids deserve to experience life with as few barriers as possible.”

About the author

Alison Johnson

Alison Johnson is a freelance writer who specializes in feature stories on health, nutrition and fitness, as well as biographical profiles. A former full-time newspaper reporter, she has worked for two Virginia dailies and the Associated Press in Richmond. She lives in Yorktown, Va., with her husband and two sons.

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