By Julie Ritzer Ross
About a year ago, Hanover Township resident Anthony Iuliano, who is now 16 years old and a junior at Whippany Park High School, approached his mother, Maureen, with a question. But he wasn’t asking for spending money, or permission to go somewhere with one of his friends. Instead, he wanted to know whether Hanover Park had an organized athletics program geared toward special-needs children. The answer was “no”—so the Iulianos set out to create one.
Known as Sports Buddies Camp, the program operated on five Sundays this past fall, running from Oct. 7 through Nov. 4, at the Whippany Park High School track and turf field. Open to boys and girls in second through fifth grades, it attracted five participants with a range of special needs, including autism and deafness, among others.
Anthony’s inspiration for the program was his 11-year old sister, Kyleigh, who herself has special needs and attends Bee Meadow Elementary School in Whippany. Both Anthony, who is a member of the Whippany High School boys’ varsity soccer team, and Kyleigh’s twin Lacey, who is a student at Whippany’s Memorial Junior School and does not have special needs, have long been active in organized sports.
Kyleigh, Maureen said, is “very active” at home and loves to run, kick a soccer ball, and play basketball on the court” in the family’s backyard.
“I always tried and still try to engage my sister in outdoor activities—basketball, soccer, and trampoline—but at the same time, she never had an organized sport to play or be a part of,” Anthony explained.
“In talking with my mom, I realized that the town didn’t offer a program like this, so I wanted to see if it was something we could get started,” explains Anthony. “Kyleigh is always supporting me at my soccer games, sitting in the stands, and my other sister has her own sports as well. I thought Kyleigh deserved something of her own.”
Maureen explains that she did “some legwork for him and some research as to what other towns were doing.” She found an article on the TapintoChatham.com website about a pilot program in Chatham organized by Chatham Recreation and the Chatham High School Sports Buddies Club. Conceived by then-Chatham High School junior Patrick Mortensen, a cross-country and track team participant, after helping a seven-year-old girl with special needs to prepare for a Fun Run, the program was dubbed the Spring Track and Field Program For Children With Special Needs. A total of 12 second and third graders participated in the program, according to the article.
Inspired by hearing about the success of the program from the staff of Chatham Recreation, Maureen then met several times with Denise Brennan, superintendent of Hanover Township Parks and Recreation, to share her own and her son’s ideas and thoughts about incorporating multiple activities into a weekend camp for Hanover Township’s special-needs youngsters.
Brennan, whom Maureen described as “instrumental in helping” to get Hanover Township’s program “up and running,” agreed unequivocally that it would benefit an important population and “was 100 percent behind the idea.” Brennan’s department got on board to sponsor the program right away, with miscellaneous costs—such as for T-shirts bearing the program’s slogan, “Every Child Deserves A Champion”—to be covered by a registration fee of $25 per child.
Once Sports Buddies Camp had the recreation department’s buy-in, the Iulianos obtained permission to use Whippany Park High School’s facilities for the program.
“We developed a flyer, spoke with the schools, had the signup and registration process, and there we were,” said Maureen, adding that there were no real obstacles to moving forward with the program, other than the time it took to make and finalize the necessary arrangements.
During each week of the program, about 18 to 25 Whippany Park High School students—many of whom know Kyleigh and/or are members of the school’s Peer Buddy service club—volunteered to work hand-in-hand with Sports Buddies Camp participants on a range of activities. This past fall, the children and their assistants—four or five students per camper—played soccer, football, waffle ball, and badminton, tossed bean bags, and experimented with hula-hoops and yoga. First-time volunteers arrived at the field 30 minutes in advance to discuss program goals and expectations.
“Since ‘special needs’ includes a wide range of disabilities, we wanted to make sure each child was able to participate in his or her own way,” Maureen said continuing, “Sometimes the challenge becomes finding the right activity that engages and benefits each child. We wanted to help build their self-esteem, sense of belonging, and ability to relate to other kids and form friendships. These are all things that can be very hard for a special needs child.”
Among topics reviewed were goals and ways to encourage the youngsters to follow directions and participate in physical activity, so as to develop muscular endurance, flexibility, and coordination. The importance of positive reinforcement—with lots of exclamations of “great job,” high-fives and medals distributed at the end of each session—was also emphasized.“It has worked beautifully,” Maureen said. “I knew the little kids would enjoy it; however, I didn’t realize how much the high school students would get out of this. One child who came back the second week was asking her mom if a particular high school student would be there again. She was so excited to see him (and vice versa)—a connection was made. We have one child who is deaf, so her mom or dad stays for the session—and the group has learned some sign language in order to communicate with her.”
She added that while she was initially unsure of what to expect from the Sports Buddies volunteers, they have exceeded her expectations, especially as the program calls for devoting an hour of their already scarce free time on a Sunday.
Anthony says he feels the same way.
“I’m so happy that so many of my classmates signed up for the five-week camp,” he said. “So many of them know Kylie, and it means a lot to me that they were willing to give up an hour of their time to make a difference.”
As for Kyleigh herself, she, too, loved the program. She is accustomed to the Whippany Park High School field because Anthony plays soccer there, and now, when she and her family attend games, she heads straight down to the track area, looking for “her” camp, Maureen noted.
Future plans for Sports Buddies Camp currently include continuing it in the spring and, ideally, opening it up to older participants.
“The need is definitely there,” Maureen noted. She would like to have some new equipment for the children to use, as well as to organize some trips, possibly to sports events, for them.
Anthony is hoping that Sports Buddies Camp’s spring session will, in addition to some of the fall activities, include a taste of organized sports, such as baseball, softball, and basketball. If not, no matter.
“As long as the kids have fun; that’s the most important thing,” he stated.
“I’m really very proud of Anthony for seeing the need for this, for taking the reins and being a leader, and grateful to his friends and classmates who are volunteering,” Maureen concluded. “I’m thrilled to be a part of it, and hope we are able to continue this in Hanover Township for a long time.”