Elyse Umlauf-Garneau is a Chicago-based freelance writer and former senior editor with REALTOR® Magazine.
Getting Their Game On
Competitive sports are a reality for people with physical disabilities, thanks to REALTOR® Bahar Soomekh.
August 28, 2019
“When is my real leg going to grow?”
That’s the question 9-year-old Michaela Mendez, who suffers from congenital scoliosis, asked her mother, Mayra, when she was a toddler.
Having used a prosthetic leg since she was 18 months old, Michaela often felt sidelined from normal children’s activities and started defining herself by her disability. Things changed when Mayra discovered Angel City Sports, a Los Angeles–based adaptive sports organization co-founded by real estate pro Bahar Soomekh and her husband, Clayton Frech. ACS gives people with physical disabilities the chance to play competitive sports.
Adaptive sports captured Soomekh’s attention after her son, Ezra, 14, was born with missing bones in one leg and just one finger on one of his hands. The condition, called congenital limb differences, affects six out of every 20,000 kids annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ezra’s leg was amputated and replaced with a prosthesis when he was a toddler.
Still, throughout his childhood, Ezra was athletic and loved sports. But Soomekh saw few opportunities for disabled kids to play on teams. She was upset to read about Chinese babies born with disabilities who were being abandoned. “They were treated like trash and left to die because they were missing a finger or part of their leg. I had given birth to such a child,” she recalls.
What would have shattered many parents, though, emboldened Soomekh. She became determined to create sports options for people who had none.
She saw how happy sports made Ezra and wanted to deliver that joy to other children with disabilities and to people who’d been injured, including wounded military veterans. “We all know the health and psychological benefits of being active, and the camaraderie, confidence, self-sufficiency, and values that you gain by playing on a team,” she says. “It fuels the soul—and that’s essential.”
Listen to a radio interview with Bahar Soomekh
‘Her Dedication Is Fierce’
Soomekh, a practitioner with Nourmand & Associates in Beverly Hills, Calif., started recruiting sponsors to donate adaptive sports equipment and finding coaches—some of whom were Paralympic athletes—to conduct year-round training clinics across southern California. Every June, ACS athletes get to compete at the Angel City Games, an annual Paralympic-style event at UCLA’s Drake Stadium.
The first Games in 2015 drew 150 athletes competing in two sports: track and field and wheelchair basketball. During this year’s Games, 430 athletes competed in seven categories, including tennis, basketball, and track and field.
Much of the Games’ success is due to Soomekh. “Her dedication is fierce,” says Jeff Navach, an ACS board member who describes Soomekh as someone with a gigantic heart who’s bursting with energy and enthusiasm.
Real estate skills, such as negotiating, marketing, and building relationships, have helped Soomekh with her ACS work. So have skills and connections from her prior careers in motivational training and Hollywood—as an actress in movies such as “Crash,” “Mission: Impossible III,” and the “Saw” franchise. “Once my clients are introduced to ACS, they’re all in, which is something special to me,” Soomekh says.
The patience and compassion she uses to guide clients through emotional transactions also are helpful when Soomekh helps families facing the shock of a lifelong disability.
Beyond sports programming, ACS aims to foster understanding, empathy, and leadership.
During the 2019 Games, special events such as the Experience Zone and Superhero Fun Run and Roll allowed attendees with and without disabilities to try wheelchair basketball, run obstacle courses, and play carnival games side by side.
Besides being fun, the activities also build respect and a greater understanding of those with disabilities. “Siblings play together, not at opposite ends of a playground,” says Navach. “That breaks down barriers and drives more inclusion.”
“Our work is transformative. It takes people out of their depressed shell and helps them live out their dreams on and off the sports court.”—Bahar Soomekh
For Soomekh, walking into Drake Stadium and seeing crowds of athletes and supporters is immensely gratifying, particularly when she considers each athlete’s unique struggles and emotional and physical progress. “To know that you’re a part of the transformation of a kid who’s able to smile and be happy again is powerful and fulfilling,” she says.
Soomekh’s son Ezra is currently training for the 2020 Paralympic Games. He’s a leader in ACS’s Youth Council, which helps kids develop business and leadership skills and learn about philanthropy by fundraising for ACS. He does media appearances—he’s been on “Good Morning America” and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show”—and he inspires other kids.
Outside of a medical facility one day, Michaela, for the first time, saw another kid with a prosthesis, according to her mom, Mayra. It happened to be Ezra. “He has a leg like mine,” she exclaimed. “And he’s running.”
Now she is, too.
Building skills and confidence at ACS sports clinics and finding a group of like-minded friends, Michaela's feelings of “other-ness” have waned, and she’s not intimidated when someone asks about her leg. And Mayra has found support among other ACS parents, along with information and referrals to support Michaela’s development. “It can be a lonely journey when you’re unable to help your child,” says Mayra.
Soomekh remembers her own loneliness, fear, and uncertainty during Ezra’s early years and doesn’t want others to suffer that way. Now hospitals routinely connect patients with Soomekh, who swoops in to share resources. “I want to build these families up,” she says. “When they see just darkness, we can bring light and show them that there’s an amazing world out there for them.”
She also recruits ACS participants wherever she sees them. At a gas station, she once spotted a young man named Alex who was wearing a prosthesis and marched up to tell him about ACS. He said he loved soccer, but with no health insurance, he couldn’t afford a prosthesis that would allow him to play. ACS turned out to be life-changing for him. Through sponsors, ACS surprised him with a “running blade” prosthetic foot for sports and a high-tech prosthetic leg for daily wear.
Soomekh believes everyone deserves to chase their dreams and that each person has gifts they can tap into to improve other people’s lives. “It’s the job of all of us to heal the world,” she says.