New non-profit will help all students feel like they belong

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Tracy Larsen (right), Managing Partner of the Grand Rapids office of Barnes and Thornburg, with his wife Karen, Co-President of No More Sidelines of Kent County

LEGAL NEWS PHOTOS BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

It is a heartbreaking moment for parents: all the other children get chosen to be on the team or invited to the dance, but their own child is left out.

Because of the limited opportunities for interaction with their peers, special needs children find themselves in this situation more often than the average child. But the organization No More Sidelines wants to level that field of opportunity by providing a calendar of social, and in many cases, sports-related activities.

Karen Larsen is a special needs teacher in the Kentwood schools, and she has often seen the challenges to her students feeling like they “belong.” So when she heard about No More Sidelines (NMS), which started out in Muskegon County, she decided to sign on as the volunteer Executive Director for Kent County.

Karen and her husband Tracy, who is the managing partner at Barnes and Thornburg’s Michigan/Grand Rapids office,, originally learned about NMS when their friends Larry and Lari Hines invited them to a fund-raiser for the Muskegon County group.

Larry Hines has been a tremendous benefactor for any number of projects in the Muskegon area, and he had lent his philanthropic expertise when he met Cyndi Blair, the dynamic founder of NMS. Her daughter Alivia,  who suffers with cerebral palsy, autism, and cognitive delays, was having difficulty finding avenues to make friends, so Blair stepped up and, working with other parents, developed NMS.

That was seven years ago, and the Muskegon County chapter was recently able to garner enough funding to buy a large facility, dedicated last month, to house sports and social opportunities for children like Alivia. Hines was instrumental in fund-raising for that purchase.

Karen Larsen says that the Kent County chapter will have less of an emphasis on playing sports and more on the social aspects of getting kids together. “We really want to provide the opportunity for friendships because these kids often don’t have that

network through social events.”

Though the Larsens do not have any special-needs children, they closely involve the two of their five daughters who are still high-school-age in NMS events. “We think there’s benefit for our children even though they’re not directly affected,” Tracy Larsen says, noting that the social interaction expands the girls’ horizons in ways that are hard to duplicate through traditional educational channels.

At Barnes and Thornburg, Larsen serves as vice-chair of the large Corporate Department. A West Michigan native, he graduated magna cum laude from Indiana University School of Law after attending Hope College, where he also received high honors.

He specializes in corporate and securities law, and has one of the most active merger and acquisition practices in the Midwest, including guiding overseas acquisition strategies for many clients.
He was formerly chair of the Business Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan.

Karen Larsen received her undergraduate education at Calvin College, including some cognitive disability programming jointly with Grand Valley State University. She has worked as a teacher since 1985, and has received her Masters in Learning Disabilities. She also worked briefly as a researcher on a project concerning Attention Deficit Disorder. “I teach in a resource room,” she says, “so all of my different educational endorsements are put to use.”

Naturally, both of the Larsens are very busy with their professional pursuits, but Karen has taken the time to organize several events over the past year and intends to do more.  “We’ve taken them to movies, but they do engage in athletic activities too, bowling, swimming parties, even basketball.”

Tracy adds, grinning, “They even had a chance to play a little with some of the U of M basketball team, so they were probably all really excited this week.”

Karen says that currently there is no sense that Kent County will follow Muskegon in acquiring a building, because there are a lot of appropriate venues already in existence. She hopes  also to involve the students in volunteer activities, such as wrapping gifts at Christmas.

Events are open to all middle school and high school students in Kent County. There is a swimming party scheduled for April 28. For more information or to sign their kids up, parents should visit www.nomoresidelines.org/kent-county.

Karen Larsen says that, while at the site, parents and other community members can check on volunteer opportunities. Volunteers will help out with events and possibly spend occasional one-on-one time with special needs students, and they must undergo a background check.

Tracy Larsen does find the time to work on obtaining funding for the fledgling organization, and had an encouraging positive response from a corporate sponsor just this week, but the couple welcomes additional donations. There is an easy way to donate on the website above.

Event attendance has ranged from 5 to 10, but it is trending upwards. The chapter has already met with success in helping kids form friendships and increasing their feelings of belonging.
“This has been such a passion of Karen’s over her teaching career, even before No More Sidelines,” Tracy Larsen says, “It was very much a natural connection for us — some-
thing we’re passionate about and believe in.”

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