Achilles International

The purpose of our agency

Achilles International was founded in 1983 by Dick Traum, the first amputee to run the New York City marathon on a prosthetic leg. Its purpose is to provide mainstream athletic opportunities to people with disabilities, focusing on long distance running. Achilles has its headquarters and flagship chapter in New York City. For nearly thirty years Achilles has been the standard bearer for the power of athletics to integrate people with disabilities into the general public.

How we would spend the grant

Funds will support our Achilles Kids program, which provides athletic and recreational opportunities for 4,000 low income children with disabilities in 150 public schools throughout New York City. Students keep track of the miles they run, walk, or roll in their adaptive physical education classes throughout the year. They mark their progress on customized maps of NYC created by Achilles. Those who reach 26.2 miles are rewarded with a free pair of Nike sneakers. In 2012, more than 3,000 children received sneakers for completing the virtual marathon. The shoes make a powerful impact on the children, as it is often the first new item they have ever received. Students who earned the sneakers wrote thank you letters expressing their joy and appreciation. One slept in his shoes for a week. Another wrote that the shoes fit so well he was able to use them with his leg braces, which fit comfortably for the first time in his life. Others exulted over the bright colors and perfect fit, as they had never owned shoes that were meant just for them – not hand-me-downs from siblings or cousins.

What outcomes we hope to achieve

The impact of our program on participating children and families is significant. Parents and teachers report that regular activity through Achilles workouts increases the children’s motivation, socialization, concentration, self-control, enthusiasm, and the ability to follow instructions. The experience of working hard to reach an ambitious goal has enormous benefits to their self-esteem and confidence. The impact extends to the entire family as children encourage the entire family to embrace a healthy, active lifestyle. Regular exercise improves physical fitness, mobility, endurance, speed, and cardiovascular health, but most importantly, Achilles makes exercise FUN so that children are excited to make it a part of their daily lives. Teachers have found that physical activity helps release frustration and gives children a healthy outlet for excess energy.

How we will measure success

Achilles Kids uses surveys administered to teachers to measure the demographics of program participants, the teachers’ impressions of the program, the numbers of children completing the virtual marathon, and to gather suggestions for improvement. These surveys are conducted annually. Achilles is also in constant communication with individual teachers. Our goal for 2013 is to give away 3,500 pairs of sneakers – a new record!

The need or problem that our organization works to address, and the population that our agency serves

Achilles Kids was founded to address the disparity in physical education opportunities available to low income children with disabilities. Many NYC public schools – particularly those in District 75, which serves children with special needs – lack the resources to institute an adaptive physical education curriculum. Achilles provides this curriculum in a way that improves children’s health and fitness, increases their self esteem, introduces them to achievement, and provides a valuable reward. A growing body of research attests to the academic, social, and behavioral benefits of a comprehensive school based exercise program. Studies from the University of Illinois found that “just 20 minutes of walking” before a test raised children’s scores, even if the children were otherwise unfit or overweight. Fit children had significantly larger basal ganglia, a key part of the brain that aids in maintaining attention and “executive control.” M.R.I. scans have revealed that fitter children had heftier hippocampi helping complex memory and “enhanced neurocognition.” A University of Kansas study conducted at 24 low income public schools found that 10-minute activity breaks, usually done to music, led to improved scores in math, spelling and composition among the participants. The students also increased their activity levels outside school, on weekdays and weekends, and gained less weight than those in the schools who did not institute fitness breaks. Despite these clear advantages, according to the Healthy Children 2010 report, people with disabilities are less likely to participate in sustained or vigorous exercise than people without disabilities. Achilles wants to ensure that the multiple physical, social, academic, and behavioral benefits of regular exercise are available to children with disabilities.

Current programs and accomplishments

In addition to Achilles Kids, Achilles has several programs helping people with disabilities be active and achieve. The Achilles Freedom Team of Wounded Veterans is a training and rehabilitation program for young men and women injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. Achilles works closely with physical and occupational therapists at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to integrate workouts into the veterans’ ongoing rehab. Achilles sponsors the veterans in 14 mainstream races, including the NYC Marathon. The races restore a sense of optimism and hope to team members who are grappling with new limitations and restrictions. The Freedom Team creates a cohesive group of people who offer each other encouragement and support as they face numerous obstacles to rebuilding their lives.

In New York City, Achilles has approximately 200 athletes with disabilities active in our running and social events. People with disabilities meet every Tuesday and Saturday for workouts in Central Park. The goal event is the NYC Marathon, and to lead up to that goal, Achilles athletes participate in local NYC races each month. In recent years our triathlon team has helped people with disabilities to succeed as multisport athletes.

In addition to its school program Achilles also runs a weekend program, which meets regularly for workouts. Children with disabilities and their able-bodied siblings stretch, do calisthenics and strength building exercises, run laps, and participate in running based games. Like all Achilles programs, it is offered at no charge. It provides a support network for over burdened parents and an outlet for children to exercise and have fun in a safe, supportive, and welcoming environment. A group of children from this program have recently had success training for and competing in mainstream races and it is our hope that as they mature they will become active members of our NYC Chapter.

Number of paid full-time staff, part time staff, and volunteers

Achilles has nine full-time paid staff members and five part-time staff members. We are fortunate to work with approximately 1,000 volunteers annually across all of our programs and events.

How we differ from other organizations working to meet the same needs or providing similar services

Achilles works closely with the NYC Board of Education, the Jewish Community Center (which donates the space for our weekend workouts), NY Cares (which provides volunteers for the weekend workouts), and New York Road Runners (in whose races Achilles Kids and adults frequently compete). Achilles works closely with individuals schools and their administrators and teachers. Achilles is unique among organizations offering similar programs in a number of ways. We offer programs for people of all ages and disabilities, as distinguished from organizations that serve specific disabilities or demographic groups. Achilles has particular interest and expertise in helping low income people with complex disabilities and health needs. Many organizations specialize in developing elite athletes for competitions such as the Paralympics whereas Achilles focuses on helping everyday people make exercise a part of their daily lives. Achilles is distinguished in that it is inclusive (welcoming people with both physical and cognitive disabilities). Our most pronounced distinction as compared with groups like the Special Olympics is that we are focused on integrating people with disabilities into mainstream events. It is our belief that people with disabilities have great potential in all areas of life and athletics is the means we use to break down the barriers that prevent them from fulfilling their goals.