FRESNO, Ca. – Nearly one in six Americans are living with some form of a disability, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act National Network. Outside of grade schools, however, there are few places that allow people with disabilities to play and learn collaboratively with people that do not have them.
Break the Barriers in a non-profit organization that allows people of all abilities to come together through athletics and performing arts.
“I believe that Break the Barriers is a voice that brings hope and awareness and outreach and education to the world,” said co-founder Deby Hergenrader.
Deby Hergenrader founded the organization in her backyard more than 20 years ago to help her younger sister Kathy, who has Down syndrome. Hergenrader wanted to create a special place where differences in natural ability were irrelevant and people focused on fun and friendship.
Hergenrader, a former Olympics Trials gymnast and her husband Steve, a former New York Yankees baseball player, both knew the value of athletics. They took their knowledge and passion for sports and channelled them into a program that helps the self confidence of those with special needs.
“We're teaching the difference about how to judge people, we're hoping we can change their ideas and concepts about how they look at different people and give that person a chance to show who they really are,” said Steve Hergenrader.
Jared Schmidt has Down syndrome and is both a member of the international performance team and a coach at Break the Barriers. With the help of the organization, he has become extremely successful in athletics. In 2003, Schmidt won six medals at the Special Olympics in Ireland.
“It's a pretty neat program, and I love it there,” said Schmidt.
The organization now has more than 3,000 students who practice a variety of sports including swimming, martial arts, dance and gymnastics.
The team travels all over the world to help raise awareness in other countries and to show that people are not limited by their disabilities.
"I never thought we would be able to show the world that all people belong together and that it was going to be beyond the central valley,” Hergenrader said.
The people who practice at the facility will continue to be an inspiration to the world.
“Look beyond what you think you see, because inside is ability, and we are so blessed to be here,” she said.