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Community Spotlight: Getting Acadiana Amp’d Up

Jul 20, 2018 01:40PM ● By Erin Holden

Radona Hanks Leonberger founded Amp’d Up, a team of athletes with special needs who recently won the silver medal at a state tournament in volleyball. Leonberger started Amp’d Up in March to engage Acadia Parish special needs athletes in the community and get them involved.

“This is actually an intellectual part of Special Olympics,” Leonberger explained. “Some of these athletes play as well as someone without intellectual disabilities,” but they may have difficulty understanding the rules. “This gives them the opportunity to play with people that understand them, that know what to do when they react to something.”

The team celebrate their silver place in volleyball. 

Leonberger is referring to the volunteers who act as “partners” in the game. Each team in Acadiana’s Special Olympics has a group of athletes (those with special needs) and partners (those without) who play with the athletes. In this way, it is an inclusive activity that brings all kinds of people together instead of making the team exclusively special needs. This is considered a Special Olympics Unified Sport.

Leonberger said that this way “the athletes are able to learn if they don’t know about the sport – they learn from a partner, and this is giving society a chance to see what it’s really like” to engage with the special needs community. She has had partners who have come in to see what the organization is all about, and they never leave. Many of them even bring their family and friends to get involved. “It’s kind of addictive because you learn to love these kids,” Leonberger said.

                 Radona and her son Noah

18-year-old Noah is Leonberger’s son, and he has Asberger Syndrome. She said, “I did get involved with special needs things because of my son – this isn’t the only special needs thing I do. I teach classes in Girard Park and at the Heymann Center.” Leonberger has to undergo chemotherapy treatments, but her work with Amp’d Up and her other involvement with special needs people lifts her spirits.

“I just get a lot of hugs, prayers, and phone calls,” she said. “I do it because of them.”

Leonberger said that she and the athletes support each other. They lean on her for support, sending her texts when they have had a tough day. “A lot of it is knowing they have somebody to talk to and that I know they are there. It keeps me going.”

So few partners quit that it is sometimes difficult to make room for more volunteers; however, Leonberger is adding softball and basketball teams for the Amp’d Up group so, once she gets more athletes on those teams, she could use more volunteers.

“What we want people to understand is that you don’t have to be special needs to play on our team.” The athletes also have a wide spectrum of special needs and disabilities. Some are in wheel chairs or walkers, while others have Down’s Syndrome or are simply slow learners.

Softball will begin in August and, since Amp’d Up relies on donations, Leonberger needs equipment (new or used). This could include catcher’s equipment, bats, softballs, gloves, and she could also use a space for the athletes to practice. For example, she needs a place for the athletes to have batting practice.

If you would like to get involved in volunteering, donating, or getting a special needs person involved in Amp’d Up, contact Radona Hanks Leonberger at 337-581-0573. Amp’d Up accepts all athletes eight and up.

“My greatest hope would be that friendships get formed, that memories are made,” Leonberger said, “for them to be able to do these sports and not feel intimidated, and for them to feel accepted and included.”