It's well known that sports are very important in Ascension Parish. One thing that may get lost is how important they are to the parish's residents that have intellectual disabilities.

It's well known that sports are very important in Ascension Parish. One thing that may get lost is how important they are to the parish's residents that have intellectual disabilities.

With physical activity being so key, Friendship House (non-profit organization dedicated to helping those with special needs) held their Fall Sports Camp at the Gonzales Municipal Park last week.

The camp went on for three days and welcomed all those in the parish with intellectual disabilities to take part in soccer, kickball, volleyball and tennis. Throughout the three days, they were able to learn new sports skills, build friendships and have fun. It was meant to be just as inspiring socially as athletically.

Parent advocate and organizer Lisa Westerfield was thrilled with what the camp was able to accomplish.

"The camp has been really great. We're just trying to touch recreation in the parish for individuals with special needs," Westerfield said. "We feel really good about providing the opportunity to get out in this beautiful Thanksgiving weather and feel thankful for a lot of blessings."

The camp drew student volunteers from Dutchtown, St. Amant and East Ascension through Allied Health. For tennis instruction, the Ascension Tennis Association also volunteered.

The Arc of East Ascension was involved. COEA is the oldest and largest non-profit agency based in Ascension. Like Friendship House, they are dedicated to helping those with disabilities.

The camp almost didn't happen. It was originally supposed to be Special Olympics' Camp Shriver--which was held in the parish for the first time last year.

However, they pulled out not long before the event due to low numbers. Westerfield felt it was vital to keep the camp in Ascension despite Camp Shriver's departure.

"This is extremely important--even if we only had three campers. This is all about recreation, health and wellness. That is so important for this population," Westerfield said. "We're just trying to provide opportunities for inclusion. We have great volunteers that we really appreciate. This is about advocacy and awareness, and we are so blessed."

She said that she was very pleased with the amount of campers that ended up participating throughout the three days. Westerfield said that these sports-based camps are extremely advantageous to those with special needs.

"Participating in sports is extremely important for both sides of the brain," Westerfield said. "We're learning that more and more with research in Parkinson's and other elderly diseases that being active is very beneficial. Sports, recreation and even leisure activities are important for growth and health."

In addition to the neurological aspect, on their website, the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons states that these physical activities are imperative for those with mental disabilities.

"People with mental disabilities often have a combination of health problems, which are often tied to physical inactivity," the AAOS said. "Recent studies have looked at the heart and lung function of people with mental disabilities. When they are in their 20s, they often have the heart and lung function of people 20 to 30 years older.

"Inactivity can make a person more likely to develop problems with the heart and blood vessels. Inactivity can also decrease a person's ability to take care of himself or herself."

Of course, these kinds of camps also have social and mental components that are just as important.

"There are many benefits to physical activity. A person who is active feels better about himself or herself," the AAOS said. "Physical activity in people with mental disabilities can help improve their health, physical function, self-esteem and behavior. It can provide an enjoyable social outlet, and it can help support families and caregivers."

That is echoed by Westerfield. Having a child with an intellectual disability, it is so gratifying for her to organize camps to help like individuals throughout Ascension.

"It's very important to me because of my daughter. There are many other families around the parish that are similar," Westerfield said. "We've been in the parish for 22 years. My family has blossomed because of the other families here in the parish. My heart and my passion are with the individuals with special needs and their families. We walk the same path."

To learn more about Friendship House or to get involved, you can check out their website at www.friendshiphouse201.wix.com/friendshiphouse.