Challenge Day Race is big fun for special-needs children

July 12, 2011

By Quinn Eddy

On July 16, the Rotary Club of Issaquah will host the 14th annual Issaquah Rotary Challenge Day Race. The event allows participants with mental and physical disabilities to experience the fun of a soapbox derby race.

“It’s great to see these special-needs kids having fun,” said Leo Finnegan, creator of the Challenge Day Race. “Everybody feels really good about what happens at the races.”

Excitement builds as teams of two climb into their soapbox cars. In the driver’s side seat sits an able-bodied youngster with the special-needs youngster riding shotgun.

When the starting gate hits the ground gravity takes over, causing the streamlined soapbox cars to roll down the hill. Some cars have reached speeds as high as 17 mph.

Each special-needs child will get three rides down the hill.

“The pre-selected driver’s seat is first offered up to siblings of the special-needs kids and family members of Rotary volunteers,” Finnegan said.

Traditionally, soapbox cars are designed to carry one driver, but those used for this event have been made to carry two.

The Challenge Day Race was first started by longtime Issaquah resident Finnegan 30 years ago with events originally in Redmond, Renton, Olympia and Bellingham. The idea started with his sons. Two were involved with soapbox derby races, but due to a developmental disability his eldest son Timmy couldn’t participate.

At 44, Timmy hasn’t outgrown the sport.

“He still rides. He’s been down the hill more than anybody ever will,” Finnegan said. “He really looks forward to it.”

Other activities at the event include adaptive cycling for children and adults with disabilities, and lunch for participants and volunteers provided by the Rotary Club.

Adaptive cycling is provided by the organization Outdoors for All.

“They specialize in bicycles for people with any type of physical challenge and have between 12 to 15 different types of cycles.” Finnegan said.

At the end of the event the Rotary Club presents each challenged racer a certificate award that features a picture of the racer in a soapbox car.

“I’ve had parents tell me that kids ask 364 days a year, ‘Is this race day?’” Finnegan said.

One of Finnegan’s favorite memories of the event took place over three years. A family with two special-needs children — a boy and a girl — attended an event.

The first year, the boy did fine but the girl was too scared. The same thing happened the next year, but halfway through the race the third year, she decided to give it a try.

They first started out by pushing her in the car on flat ground, slowly building her confidence to ride down the hill from the ramp. After completing her first ride, she was ecstatic.

“When got out of the car she went to her mother, she said, ‘More,’” Finnegan said. “It was a breakthrough and a turning point for her. She gained confidence going down that hill.”

In addition to the Issaquah race, Finnegan puts on three others across the state. Other cities that hold a race are Sammamish, Oak Harbor and Spokane.

“It’s a lot of work being a special-needs parent. This event really gives them a break.” Finnegan said.

The eight double-wide soapbox cars, ramps, helmets and custom trailer were donated by Puget Power to the nonprofit organization Life Enrichment Options. LEO was started by Finnegan’s wife and four mothers of other disabled children.

The organization started as a group deeply committed to the future of those who have developmental disabilities and in particular assists with housing, employment and recreation.

The organization holds education seminars for parents of children with disabilities. LEO has also started several adult family homes to house older disabled citizens; each location has a full-time caregiver.

“The homes give the parents peace of mind that their sons and daughters are safe,” Finnegan said. “Some of the disabled even become a little more independent.”

Registration for the Challenge Day Race begins at 8:30 a.m. with racing from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. The event is open to all children with mental and physical challenges.

All participants must be under 5 feet, 2 inches and they must weigh 130 pounds or less.

Because between 50 and 60 participants are expected, the event has been broken up into three sessions: 9-10:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m. to noon and 1-2 p.m.

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