Changing lives for the better when people are at their lowest is what the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) does best.
CAF, a nonprofit that got its start 30 years ago in San Diego, has developed into a major player in the adaptive sports movement, helping people around the world with physical challenges get active and remain active, supporting thousands of athletes in gaining confidence and independence, and empowering lives through sport.
One of the driving champions in the adaptive sports world, CAF is all about “doing the right thing at the right time,” says CAF co-founder Bob Babbitt, who started Competitor Magazine in 1987, currently runs the Babbitt Media Group and hosts the radio shows “Breakfast with Bob” and “Babbittville.”
When a catastrophic incident happens and an injury of great magnitude is heavy on a person’s mind, “the first thing they might think about is, ‘My life as I know it is over,’” Babbitt said. “Well, to me, when one door closes another one opens up. This is what CAF is all about. We create change and we create moments. We look at what we can do and think, ‘How can we help this person live their best life? How can we impact something so horrific and turn this into a positive?’”
Since its founding in 1994 by Babbitt, Jeffrey Essakow and Rick Kozlowski, the group has raised more than $159 million – funds that have gone toward adaptive sports equipment not typically covered by medical insurance and considered “luxury” items.
Items that CAF helps cover include running prosthetics and adaptive sports equipment like handcycles, racing chairs, hockey sleds and mono-skis – and so much more. CAF also funds sports training, travel and coaching expenses and resources as well as competition expenses to support physically challenged athletes at all experience levels.
CAF recently announced its largest grant distribution since it began providing life-changing access to sports and physical activity, with nearly 4,000 grants with a total value of more than $7 million this past year.
“This is the ultimate success story of a charity based in San Diego that started as a way to help one person, and got the support of the entire San Diego community to change thousands of people’s lives,” Babbitt said.
The one person that catapulted CAF’s rise to global leader in making sports accessible for those with physical challenges was Jim MacLaren, a standout football player at Yale.
MacLaren lost his left leg below the knee in a motorcycle accident in 1985 when he was 22, but as an amputee, he went on to finish the IRONMAN race in Hawaii. Eight years later, in 1993, during the Orange County Triathlon, MacLaren was struck by a van during the bicycle racing part of the race, and he became a quadriplegic.
The following year, Babbitt, Essakow and Kozlowski with a group of their friends held the first San Diego Triathlon Challenge to help purchase an adaptive van for MacLaren. A fundraising goal of $25,000 was set, but the event brought in nearly double that at $49,000.
“This was a ‘one-off mission,’ just for Jim 30 years ago,” said Essakow, chairman of the board and president of CAF. “With the additional funds, we were able to provide for more medical needs and the mission was complete.”
But Essakow, president of commercial development giant Protea Properties, said it was obvious that the original mission had built a following, gained traction and needed to continue.
Essakow said this year, CAF’s grant distribution reached athletes from all 50 states and 39 countries. Athletes receiving financial help ranged in age from two to 88, and spanned 101 different sports and activities.
Essakow said that CAF believes that sports have the power to change lives. “Giving away money is easy,” he said. “But making a difference is the hard part. Our core belief is that the greatest gift you can give someone is their independence.”
Even as the group has its own challenges – in 2022, CAF saw a 9% increase in grant requests and a 20% increase in equipment costs – it continues to create a continuum of support to expand efforts to engage new athletes and build community on a global scale.
Challenged Athletes Foundation
CO-FOUNDERS: Rick Kozlowski, Bob Babbitt and Jeffrey Essakow
HEADQUARTERS: Mira Mesa
BUSINESS: Nonprofit to support challenged athletes
BUDGET: $12 million
SOCIAL IMPACT: Nonprofit CAF connects challenged athletes with adaptive equipment and other needs so they can pursue their sports.
NOTABLE: Endowment is $26 million dollars and building is totally paid $159 million. CAF has provided more than 44,000 grants to athletes in 105 different sports in 73 countries and 50 states.