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Laurel Moorhead on Being ‘One of Many’

Disability Awareness Month: 2012 Honoree

In the course of your life, there are moments that pass undetected, and moments that are life changing. The latter are the ones that can overwhelm you, give you hope or open a new door.

For Laurel Moorhead, Disability Awareness Month 2012 honoree, such was the case. She remembers that pivotal moment very well. It was when her eldest daughter, Sara, who has partial atrophy in her spinal cord and cannot walk without support, was eight years old. By that time, Sara had already endured a few surgeries and countless hours of physical therapy.

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Above: KPBS celebrates cultural diversity in partnership with Union Bank by honoring Laurel Moorhead during Disability Awareness Month 2012.

In school, the extent of Sara’s participation in PE amounted to serving as ball monitor and scorekeeper for the class. In other words, sitting on the sidelines, watching her fellow students have fun while competing at sports. During this time, Sara became the victim of bullying.

“I worried, as all parents of a child with a disability do, that someday she would be the target of teasing or bullying,” Moorhead says. “When it started, I watched, horrified as my self confident and independent daughter became full of self doubt.”

But then someone told Moorhead about a one-week wheelchair sports camp, and that changed everything.

Photo credit: Laurel Moorhead

Laurel Moorhead with her daughter, Sara.

"My daughter could go up a ladder and down a slide, but she had yet to do anything else," recalls Moorhead of these years. "And then you see these kids playing wheelchair basketball, wheelchair rugby, and they are flying around the court. They're excited, they're engaged, and they're playing team sports, competing and being part of this whole community.”

It was gratitude, mixed with relief, admits Moorhead, when she finally found a community of parents, who wanted to see their children with disabilities, thrive and succeed. At first, finding sports activities for these children wasn’t easy, not until the City of San Diego began expanding its sports programs for the disabled, which soon included weekly wheelchair soccer practice. Then in 2005, facing budget cuts, the city threatened to cut back its sports programs.

Which is when Moorhead sprung into action. She, along with three other community members, Ross Ehrhardt, Al Kovach, Jr, and Walter Beerle, decided to help the city by saving the sports programs. In 2006, they founded what has become San Diego Adaptive Sports Foundation (SDASF).

"We incorporated as a non-profit, and negotiated with the city to take over the adaptive sports programs and camp that they had started,” explains Moorhead. “We have a partnership with them, and it's a real cooperative relationship. And, we were able to expand the program to having year-round sports."

As one of the founders, Moorhead served initially as treasurer. After about three years of getting the program off the ground and seeing it grow, she left SDASF. But then, three years ago, when many nonprofits were suffering from a slow economy, Moorhead was asked to return as executive director of SDASF, with no pay.

“This has truly been a labor of love,” she notes about her efforts to help rebuild the organization. “Yet, while I had to perform a lot of administrative work to keep the organization moving forward, and work really hard on fundraising, every time I met with a new athlete and their parents, I was taken back to our first experiences with adaptive sports.”

“Not having been active in sports myself,” she continues, “I didn’t realize their importance in bolstering a child’s self-esteem. Sports are an important tool for gaining self confidence and enhancing self esteem in all kids, particularly for those with disabilities.”

Yet SDASF is not just for youth. The foundation serves people of all ages who have physical disabilities, with athletes as young as four. Though, Moorhead points out, “We’ve had kids at 3-and-a-half. Why would you cut it off when there’s a need for what we offer?”

Meanwhile, the oldest athlete at SDASF, is an 85-year-old World War II veteran and amputee. “He was in the first wheelchair basketball organization tournament in the late 1940’s,” says Moorhead with pride, adding, “He’s not a big player now, but he still comes out for practice.”

As for Sara, who is now 23 and studying for her PhD in Linguistics at UC Santa Cruz, she, too, has been fully committed to helping other athletes.

“She’s a beautiful girl,” beams Moorhead. “A valedictorian, and an accomplished wheelchair athlete who was recruited by universities all over the U.S., that have wheelchair basketball teams. At 17, she started being a volunteer at camp. For the last three years, she’s been a full counselor leading a group of athletes.”

Moorhead, who is now retired and pursuing her other interests in travel and art, fills with emotion when she remembers the day that opened Sara to new possibilities. The day that set Moorhead on a path to becoming a local hero.

“That day, 17 years ago, when we first went to the camp, was literally life changing for our entire family. The fact that Sara had a disability became insignificant. Instead of being the only one, she was one of many.”


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