HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- Spend a few moments with the Smuts family in Henrico and you will soon realize brothers Greg and Jonathan share hoop dreams. But for years, their basketball world did not extend beyond their driveway.
Greg, 25, lives with Down syndrome. He was adopted by Gwen and her husband Jim when he was six years old.
The couple adopted 23-year-old Jonathan when he was just seven months old.
Jonathan lives with cerebral palsy.
Social and athletic outlets were few and far between for the boys.
"There were very few opportunities for children with disabilities," Gwen Smuts recalled.
But life changed for the family when Kate Mardigian stepped into their lives.
"Every time I see the kids accomplish something I get so excited," Kate said.
Kate founded Jacob’s Chance. The six-year-old non-profit invites young people with disabilities like autism, Down syndrome, Cerebral palsy, and Asperger syndrome to play team sports.
The all-volunteer group, which relies solely on donations, introduces the athletes with disabilities to baseball, basketball, bowling, tennis, surfing, and football.
"We never make them adapt to the sport. They have enough in their life to adapt to," Kate said.
The organization is named after Kate’s friend’s late son Jacob who loved sports. Thanks to the non-profit, budding athletes build confidence and grow.
"I’ve enjoyed watching them get older. They’re like my kids. Like my kids watching them accomplish things in their life," Kate said.
Kate said Jacob’s Chance also benefited moms and dads like Gwen and Jim.
"This is not only their child’s chance to shine, but a parent’s chance to shine. Just to be so proud of their kids,” Kate said.
“The things that we have learned from one another has just been fantastic," Jim Smuts said.
So far Kate’s group has helped more than 150 athletes from ages five to 25. Participation in Jacob’s Chance comes with no cost to the families.
"I just want one thing in their life that they don’t have to worry about," Kate said.
Back at the Smuts' family home, a grateful Jim and Gwen said Kate’s passion has helped their sons shine.
"You can tell she loves the children and she cares about the parents," Gwen said.
For Kate Mardigian, athletes like Greg and Jonathan are and will always be kings of the court.
“They’re my heroes. They make up my heart,” Kate said. “They are who I am supposed to be. They make up the path I’m supposed to be walking down. They make up my life.”
Kate’s next project is to build a Jacob’s Chance recreation center for the athletes. Kate’s non-profit exists solely on donations. If you would like to help, click here.