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The Power of Inclusive Sports: C to C, The Commitment to Community Podcast Series from Oswald

October 8, 2021

Welcome to this episode of C to C, featuring Tom Heines, Executive Director, Empower Sports. This interview took place this past summer right before an event with Empower Sports athletes and families at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, and on the night of the NBA draft of all nights! Empower athletes had the chance to play basketball on the main court along with volunteers from Oswald and additional volunteer groups. The venue was buzzing with energy and events that day, and unfortunately many of those noises made it into the audio recording.

If you can get past the noises you will discover the back story behind an amazing Northeast Ohio nonprofit, which is continually on the grow, in both community connections and impact. Special thanks to Oswald’s Brian Stovsky, Empower Board Member, for introducing our organizations. Check out the featured links below to learn more and stay in touch with Tom and his team!





Schmitz: Well, hello, we’re back again. It’s Christina Capadona-Schmitz with C To C the commitment to community podcast from Oswald Companies.  I’m here today with Tom Heines. He is the founder and executive director of Empower Sports. And where are we today Tom? Where are we talking about?

Heines: We’re at the venue formerly known as Quicken Loans the Q, Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, and it’s the NBA Draft night. We have a bunch of our players, athletes with developmental disabilities coming together to play on the same court as the Cleveland Cavaliers, so it’s going to be a great lead up to the draft and who knows, maybe Koby Altman will see some of the kids and decide to give them a 10-day contract, we’ll see. We have a phenomenal event here. The opportunity to have some of our sponsors and supporters come out and play with the kids is big!

Schmitz: Yes we are, we’re so excited to be a part, we’re going to have some of our folks out playing with the athletes. But before we get into that event, can you tell me a little bit about Empower Sports, how did you come across this idea? And what, over the last 10 years, what have you learned?

Heines: Yeah, I love to tell the story. I wish it was a more inspirational background story. But it was really just a suggestion by my dad, who’s been my mentor and best friend growing up and someone that I aspire to be like … he’s someone that an entrepreneur puts others before himself in every way possible. But he just met a guy while I was still in college that was a special care financial planner. My dad’s basketball business wasn’t at the time doing anything for people with disabilities. The special care planner, Steve Thompson, who’s still one of our founding board members, suggests, “why aren’t you doing any of these programs for kids with special needs?”… there’s a lack of programming and the sports are so powerful, you know, the power of sports. My dad reached out to me and said I don’t know what you’re going to do after college. I also didn’t know what I was going do after college….if you come home, I want to introduce you to Steve, I think you’ll be inspired by his passion for people with disabilities. Let’s do something together for kids with disabilities. So it truly was just that push in the right direction, we started our first program with no prior experience, I didn’t really have any grand visions of where it would where it would go over the course of 10 years. But from that first day, being with the kids and the families, and just seeing the joy in which they experienced sport, and being together, and making new friends, it’s contagious, and you can’t help but fall in love with the kids and their families and just be compelled to do more and try to make a greater impact.

Schmitz: Yeah, my first experience was last fall. Now this was still in the middle of the pandemic. How important are sports, even in our current situation, and sports to these athletes, during those difficult times?

Heines: Yeah and I think we know, sports are sports, when done the right way, you have the power to do so many amazing things from helping people develop new friendships and relationships, and bring people of diverse backgrounds together around something fun to do. Sports are just so so powerful, it can make such a profound impact. And I think we saw that, elevated probably last year during the pandemic, and now on a personal note, my wife and I welcomed our second daughter on March 7, just at the beginning rung of the pandemic. So I think Empower Sports was probably more beneficial for me last year than it was for the kids it was something to dive into and stay connected with the people that I love. Aside from the long nights and sleepless nights with a with a brand new baby, but we did see last year, we fought hard and tried to maintain programming, whether that was virtual, or significantly adapted in person with all of the proper safety guidelines. We were one of the few organizations that really did work towards providing in-person programming. We saw the response from the families was so powerful because their kids lost everything; they lost the structure that matters so much to them as far as going to school, their jobs, and routine and seeing people….being social is so important to our kids. When they lost all that during the early stages of the pandemic, I think parents and our kids were desperate for something to do. So we were proud to play a small role and in being there for those that were still comfortable to, with of course the proper safety guidelines, be together and play. It was a powerful time and we’re certainly happy to be coming into brighter days, hopefully as the vaccine has been rolled out and we’ve seen our numbers kind of increased to pre-pandemic levels and then people just being back together without the masks. It’s been really nice. Sports, pandemic or not, are so powerful.

Schmitz: Well, I know there’s a lot of noise in the background, you can probably hear listeners. Yeah, there is where they’re setting up. So talk about what we’re setting up for today and what’s going to happen here on the court.

Heines: Today is a pretty cool day. We’re a proud partner of the Cleveland Cavaliers here in town. We pitched this idea to them doing something on draft day, bringing kids together, and they had a full slate of activities. So we’re thankful that they made time for our kids to come down and play. We’ve got a lot going on. The staff here is setting up for the Cavaliers draft party, I know the town is pretty excited about the number three pick and the team may be making improvements. But before the draft starts, we’re going to have 50 or so of our athletes of various ages of various disabilities coming together and playing on the on the court with some of our sponsors, and some key volunteers. It’s a really kind of a cool community event where we can see our kids and introduce them to some of the people that support and make our programs possible. Hopefully just have a really fun time together.  I think with Oswald coming out, we know our kids are going to kick your butts because we saw you on the soccer field. Yes. Very good showing you guys played as well as you could, you know, you work a lot of hours in the corporate world. It’s tough to say sharp athletically, but who knows maybe guys have been in training. We’ve got members from Oswald, the “Still Here”  basketball Foundation, based in Medina, and a couple of other volunteers coming out to truly get a hands on experience with the program that they support and the families that they support, which I think is such a such a cool way to bring those two worlds together.

Schmitz: Oh, for sure, for sure. We’re very excited. And again, we have some of our volunteers will be coming in but talk a little bit more about your programs and maybe your reach throughout Northeast Ohio and where you grow…

Heines: Sure. Our programs are all over the greater Cleveland area and we’re on the east side in the suburbs Solon, Bainbridge, Chagrin, Beachwood. And then on the west side as well, looking to make a step towards Lorain County too and then we have programs south of Medina and Summit counties as well. Our programs are totally inclusive, meaning we’ll have athletes of all ages, all ability levels. We don’t exclude anyone. We have players that represent over 40 different cognitive hearing, visual and gross motor developmental disability diagnoses.

Our main focus is we want to use sports as a way to get these kids involved, help them develop self-esteem, make new relationships and we want to bring diverse groups of kids together. Especially so the inclusive side of it, where we bring typically developing peers, whether from the corporate world or high school volunteer groups, together with our kids intermix and play together, but not a Harlem Globetrotters, us versus them scenario. What we’ve seen over the course of now several years in development, is those kind of social organic interactions. Through a game, whether it’s basketball, softball, soccer, whatever it is, are so powerful in building empathy between people of, of diverse backgrounds, whether it be socioeconomic backgrounds, or cognitive ability backgrounds. We want to shatter stereotypes and help people learn to live in greater community and harmony. Hopefully, we can change the perspectives of typically developing folks that people with disabilities are human beings, they are just like you and me with maybe a couple extra quirks, but just incredible people that deserve your time and deserve to be treated with compassion and dignity, and respect. On the flip side, I know our athletes, they have a heck of a time meeting new people and competing with new people. So those relationships are really special to see happen organically through sports.

Schmitz: Definitely, and your passion for what you do is so evident, and who else on your team kind of brings it all together? I know it always it takes a village, to say that. But who? Who else, whether it’s through the community or collaboration, who makes it happen?

Heines: That’s a great question and we’re a small team with a small budget. So we do the best with our resources. I’ve been extremely blessed by the teammates that I’ve had over the years and, and especially recently, our team Jake Jackson, our program director is phenomenal at keeping things going in the right direction, and keeping things organized and he’s just so exceptional with the kids and their families. They just love him. Dawn Saylor who does all of our social media marketing stuff, she’s just exceptionally talented and also great with the kids and the families and her and Jake’s love for the families is evident. Then all of the program managers that we have, other full-time staff, and then several part-time staff members, our small team works extremely hard to make these opportunities accessible to kids over the place. I definitely have to shout out the foundations and businesses that support us because one of the hallmarks of our program is we want it to be low to no cost to families. It’s especially important to us, if a family can’t afford to pay a dime towards the program, we’re never going to turn anyone away. So to maintain those low non mandatory fees for our programs, the foundations and businesses that support us, volunteer with us, they’re the ones that really make these programs possible. Without their support, this business would have been over a long time ago, because the fee structure isn’t conducive to building and growing. So the businesses and the corporate, the corporate folks in Cleveland that have stepped up and, and supported these programs, because they believe in the vision or they love these kids and families, just the way we do are the only reason that we’ve been able to have sustained growth over the last 10 years.

Schmitz: That’s great. Well, so what’s next for Empower Sports? I know you’re everywhere, year-round programming, and you said, you have some daytime programming after school. What’s next? More importantly, how can people get involved? And what’s that first step?

Heines:  I think we want to stay present in our current business and continue to push the envelope and find new ways to impact the kids, if that’s increasing the number of programs, making them more accessible. I think right now with some funding from the Geauga County Board of Developmental Disabilities, we’re actually able to hire a full-time director in Geauga County. So we’ll be seeing a lot more on the east side now. We’re going to continue to expand the programs that we currently offer new sports, we started lacrosse last year, we’ve increased our soccer programming, we’re going to be doing football for the first time this this fall, we started golf last year. So we’re continuing to push the envelope and try to introduce new programs. It really supports the diverse needs of the interests of the kids that we work with. I think sports and recreation are great. They’re certainly good for the social and emotional development of our kids. But spending time with these families, you see, there are so many more profound ways that we feel like we can impact their lives. We’re proud of that business. We want to stay present and to be excellent at what we do. But looking towards the future, how can we provide a greater and more meaningful service to these families, right here in our hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Without saying too much, we’ve kicked the tires on a social enterprise looking at starting a business that would provide employment for some of the athletes that come through our program. And just being with the parents and families, we’re always listening, we’re always talking. What are the dreams and hopes that they have for their kids? And how could we potentially spin off from Empower Sports and offer something that’s greater and more profound impact for these families?

Schmitz: Well, I mean, clearly, you’re an inspiration to all the athletes and their families. But it sounds to me as you’re talking to me, you’re as inspired as they are, from what you’re doing.

Heines: I think, and I say this all the time. But we get the coaches, the volunteers, everyone involved in the program gets so much more out of it than we can provide to the kids, the kids in their families, they show us what simple joy looks like. They show us what it means to care for one another. So the impact they have they’ve had on me, it’s made me a better a better friend. It’s made me a better husband. It’s made me a better father. So there’s no way I can give back enough to these kids that they’ve given to me and to everyone that’s been part of the program. But we’re going to continue to work towards, how can we do more for the kids and maybe impact their lives in greater ways?

Schmitz; Well, it sounds like they might have just finished cleaning the floor. I think it’s almost time to take to take the court. But again, how can people get involved? Websites, social media, what would you suggest?

Heines: Yeah, please. We’re definitely looking to up the social media following so please go on. The first thing you can do that cost nothing is just follow us on social media, check out our website, stay locked in with what we’re developing. The great thing and one thing that I’m proud of power sports is there are so many ways, small and big to get involved in what we do. And all of it makes a huge difference. So connect with us. We’re always looking for new volunteers, businesses that are looking to do corporate volunteer outings people with sports facilities that want to host these kinds of programs, just get in touch. There’s any number of ways that the community at large can advance our mission forward. And we’re, we’re small and nimble enough to respond to ideas and we love hearing from new people.

Schmitz: Thanks, Tom, thanks so much for your time. We’re so excited for tonight. We’ll be definitely keeping in touch.

Heines: Thanks so much. Thanks for having me on.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and web formatting.

Introducing the C to C podcast, an oscast by Oswald production

Commitment to Community is a core value of Oswald; it’s the foundation of who we are and the purpose behind all we do. The CtoC podcast provides a platform for nonprofit partners to share their stories and discuss the critical issues facing their clients. Our goal: create a halo effect of service and support, inspiring our audiences to align with causes that speak to them and take action in their companies and communities.

Hosted by Christina Capadona-Schmitz, VP and director of marketing communications and leader for community engagement, this podcast series features in-depth interviews and highlights the good works happening throughout our communities.