Palms to Pines Parasports’ adaptive-cycling participants gather for the organization's debut cycling event.

According to estimates provided by the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014-2018 American Community Survey, there were 269,737 people with disabilities residing in Riverside County in 2018—representing 11.4 percent of the county’s total population.

More recently, the 2019 HARC Coachella Valley Community Health Survey reported that 74,389 people, or 21.8 percent of local adults, are limited in some way in their daily activities because of a physical, mental or emotional problem.

These Riverside County residents are the focus of the newly launched Palms to Pines Parasports (PPP) nonprofit organization. Driven by the indefatigable determination of board president and co-founder Michael Rosenkrantz, PPP announced its arrival with launch events in late October—one in Palm Desert, and the other in the city of Riverside.

PPP’s goal is to serve the needs of adaptive athletes—physically disabled individuals who participate in organized athletics.

“The idea is that we use sports as an entry point to leading a full life,” Rosenkrantz explained during a recent interview. “So we want to create a lot of sports opportunities to get people with physical disabilities more active, both physically and emotionally.”

For several months, Rosenkrantz has labored to recruit members to PPP’s fledgling board of directors and an advisory board. His efforts have resulted in the establishment of a 14-member board of directors that includes an array of local volunteers with relevant expertise and skill sets.

“You know, due to COVID-19, there’s a number of (board members) I’ve never met yet,” Rosenkrantz said. “We had a group of people who I knew already, due to our work with people who have disabilities. But we want to do more and provide more sporting opportunities, with the real focus on the adaptive athletes. We want to create a more welcoming environment. Basically, through networking—talking to this person who says, ‘Talk to that person’—it’s just grown. Everything is pointing in a positive direction.”

Most importantly, his early outreach efforts have succeeded in two invaluable relationships.

“We already have partnerships with the city of Riverside Department of Parks and Recreation, and an incredible one with the Desert Recreation District (here in Coachella Valley),” said Rosenkrantz, who previously worked at the Desert Ability Center. “Desert Rec has an adaptive-activities section with 14 sport wheelchairs that we can use. We bring expertise in terms of (conducting) various adaptive sports, and the Desert Recreation District has all the infrastructure. The same is true with Riverside. We won’t have to go and look for gyms, when they’re open. Right now, we’re able to use tennis courts or outdoor basketball courts.”

On the PPP website, the organization’s aspirations are spelled out: “Our purpose is to create a more-inclusive society by providing competitive and recreational opportunities for people with physical disabilities while instilling a lifelong passion for wellness, helping athletes realize their full potential. We envision a world in which adaptive athletes have the same opportunities to lead as full a life as their able-bodied peers. … We go to extraordinary lengths to identify potential and current athletes, (and) to meet them where they are in their life journey. This means engaging with athletes and their families on the playing field, in rehab facilities, hospitals, their homes and/or any other location that is comfortable.”

Karina Melgar is the founder and director of the recently launched LEAPS Services, as well as a PPP board member. With more than a decade of experience working in the field of special education, she was an early champion of Rosenkrantz’s vision.

“Mike and I began a conversation, because PPP is focusing on (supporting individuals with) physical disability, (while) I have so many young adults that have these cognitive intellectual disabilities,” Melgar said during an interview. “Mike and I thought it would be great to bring both organizations together, because it can be a unique learning experience where (these two approaches) could help one another. Since the individuals with cognitive intellectual disability are physically able, we can team them up in pairs to work together in doing any of the physical activities (that PPP offers). Right now, we’d like to empower the individuals with physical disabilities to help increase the communication (skills) of those individuals with cognitive intellectual disability. Also, improving socialization can help individuals with cognitive intellectual disability to grow.”

It is this multi-pronged approach to improving the lives of people with disabilities that makes PPP’s strategy distinctive.

“I was fortunate to be a part of the very first meetings where we started brainstorming what these programs could look like,” Melgar said. “It was very exciting to see these endless opportunities coming to fruition. We don’t have something like this in our valley, so it’s great that PPP will make so much possible.”

Rosenkrantz and his team recently launched—and are actively recruiting participants for—an impressive list of weekly adaptive-sports activities, including wheelchair tennis and basketball, archery, cycling and boccia. Also being offered, especially during this pandemic time, are a selection of virtual quality-of-life engagement opportunities.

“We’ll be running outdoor activities where we social-distance and wear masks,” Rosenkrantz said. “People just can’t wait to come out. But we’ve got to be aware of what’s happening (with COVID-19), so we just started doing a Zoom-Facebook Live (broadcast) every Friday morning at 9 a.m. to let people know about all the activities that are going on in the next week. So if someone wants to do something in person, they can, or if they’re more comfortable doing things online, there’s art stuff and baking stuff. There are support groups, fitness and gymnastics. We’re doing a ton of stuff, and there are a lot of people who can benefit from all of it.”

While the PPP board members and instructors are volunteering their services at this stage, substantial funding will be needed to finance the extensive goals of this ambitious entity.

“The funding piece is an issue for every organization right now,” Rosenkrantz said. “… We do have a GoFundMe campaign running. People can make donations to that. Also, I’m working with Desert Rec and the city of Riverside to apply for grants through them in helping to run programs for them. It’s going to come together.

“There’s so much need. In doing our business plan, we did a competitive analysis, and in Riverside County—including the city of Riverside, where there are absolutely no adaptive sports—there’s this gigantic need that we’re hoping to fill. I’m really pleased to see all of this collaboration with all these groups coming together and understanding that it’s really all about the people that we’re serving. Yes, we want our organizations to be successful, but it’s more about getting people active.”

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Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, after he and his wife Linda moved from Los Angeles to Palm...