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North Hall mother starts basketball camps for special-needs kids
Children to learn the basics of the sport over several weeks
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ERIN O. SMITH | The Times Julie, Donna and Ryan Aldridge pose for a photo at their North Hall County home Wednesday. Donna Aldridge is starting a summer basketball camp for rising fourth-graders to rising 7th-graders, who have mild disabilities such as autism, ADD or ADHD.

Beginners Basketball Camp
When: 9 a.m. to noon. June 13-17 and 20-24
Where: North Hall Community and Recreation Center, 4175 Nopone Road, Gainesville.
Cost: $20 per child per week
More info:, starting April 1

Since Thanksgiving, 11-year-old Ryan Aldridge has been begging his mother to play basketball.

That may seem like an easy request to grant for any mother with a tween in North Hall County. But for Ryan’s mother, Donna, the request had a couple of obstacles.

First, Ryan has never learned to play basketball in a team setting because of his struggles with autism. Ryan was diagnosed with the disability at 2 1/2 years old.

“When most typical children were learning sports, my kid was puking on me and having meltdowns,” Aldridge said.

Therefore, the mother of two knew she needed to find a beginner-level basketball league for her son.

The second hurdle for the Aldridge family was to find a league that would not conflict with their  busy family. Aldridge said current recreational leagues in the area have practice two nights a week and play games on Saturday.

“We are doing a lot of running around already,” she said.

So, with that not being a possibility, Aldridge opted to find a summer basketball camp for Ryan, who is a fifth-grader at Wauku Mountain Multiple Intelligences Academy.

“There were no basketball camps ... in this area ... on the beginner level,” she said.

Instead of being defeated, Aldridge decided to start a summer camp for her son and other children like him. And the Beginners Basketball Camp was born.

Basics of basketball

The camp will be geared toward rising fourth- through eighth-graders with special needs such as autism, ADD, ADHD and MID. Their typical peers as well as siblings — such as Ryan’s younger  sister, Julie — who want to learn may attend the camp as well.

“I envision this camp as kind of a place to welcome anybody and everybody of all abilities who just want to get together and have a good time and maybe go outside to shoot hoops and make some new friends,” Aldridge said.

The camp will focus on teaching children the basics of the sport, including how to dribble, shoot and pass. It will be geared toward the fun of playing the game rather than the competitive nature. Aldridge compared it to neighborhood pickup games instead of an organized league.

“It is nothing competitive,” she said. “It’s where kids can come in summer and see if they like it.”

The five-day camp will last for three weeks from June 13 to July 1 at North Hall Community Center at 4175 Nopone Road in Gainesville.

Parents can sign their children up for one week, two weeks or all three. In the first two weeks, the camp will be from 9 a.m. to noon with a game or skills showase on the final day. The first two weeks will cost $20 per week per child, which pays for the cost of the facility, Aldridge said.

The final week of June 27 through July 1 is dubbed “Bounce Out The Stigma” camp, which is a national campaign started by former Harlem Wizards, “Mighty Mike” Simmel.

Aldridge explained Simmel, who grew up with epilepsy, was asked to leave a basketball camp as a youth following a seizure. Knowing the effect it had on him, the professional basketball player now travels all over the country empowering young children with special needs to proclaim “only your will defines your limits, limits should never define your will.”

The camp week with Simmel will be from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and cost $40 per camper. Each child will receive an official Bounce Out the Stigma T-Shirt and their own basketball.

Registration for all camp will begin April 1 at

Running the camp

To turn the camp from an idea to a reality, Aldridge teamed up with Ric Riccardi, who is the head of the Georgia Special Olympics Master’s Division basketball coach. He will coach the kids the sport’s basics.

“I love the idea,” said Riccardi, who 25-year-old son, Joey, is on the autism spectrum. “I had an opening on one of the weeks of the camp and I thought I would get involved.”

The 69-year-old Gainesville man said he has seen the effect sports events such as Special Olympics can have on special-needs individuals.

“It does wonderful things for the people involved,” Riccardi said. “While you strive to have them mainstreamed with typical people - or I call them regular people, in Special Olympics, they have their own special community. They all have different afflictions ... but they all accept each other.”

Aldridge was quick to point out the camp is not for children with severe disabilities.

“They have the Special Olympics for that,” she said, adding children similar to her son are high-functioning individuals who need some extra care. “This is for the invisible disabilities like ADD or ADHD or autism. And it is for kids with issues and anybody who doesn’t feel comfortable in a rec league.”

Aldridge has recruited several volunteers to help with the special-needs children, including two special education paraprofessionals. The volunteers will be acting as “buddies” for children who need more individualized attention.

Licensed occupational therapist Jessica Flowers also is joining the effort as head volunteer coordinator. She has extensive experience working with special needs children. Flowers will be responsible for recruiting, directing, organizing and communicating with all the volunteers associated with the camps.

Camp experience

About 15 campers have pre-registered, including a 10th-grader with Down Syndrome. Aldridge said even though the youth is older than the age range set for the camp, she was “not going to turn anyone away.”

She also wants children of all levels to experience a summer camp atmosphere and have fun outdoors.

“I want them to have the joy of fresh air, a sense of belonging and empowerment and to develop a love for the game,” she said.

Riccardi agrees.

“I want them to take home, like any competition of their typical peers, learning how to play a game and the joy of achievement,” he said, noting making a basketball or passing the ball is an achievement. “And I want them to learn the team concept of cheering for teammate.”

The benefit of the camp not only affects the children. Parents reap the reward of having their children active during the summer.

“I want to get my children out of the house for three hours of the day for a week,” she said with a smile. “And this way they are moving and engaging with other children.”


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