Shooting hoops doesn’t seem like an extraordinary way to make a difference, but some Ohio University students have used the sport to undoubtedly change the lives of the special needs youth in Athens County. “We call it Hoops of Joy,” said Tony Moos, a senior studying Special Education and vice president of Ohio University’s Student Council for Exceptional Children (SCEC).
Launched earlier this semester through a collaborative effort by Moos and SCEC, the Hoops of Joy adaptive basketball clinics were created to get more involved with the younger special needs population in Southeast Ohio, especially since younger special needs individuals in the area don’t have many opportunities to get involved in the community.
“I’ve talked to one parent in particular, and she said that the big dilemma in Athens County is that the kids who are older than 16 and younger than 22 are stuck in a gap and don’t really have anything to do since they can’t get involved with Atco [an organization that hires the developmentally disabled in Athens] until they’re 22,” said Moos.
The SCEC’s clinic is the only adaptive program for kids with disabilities in Southeast Ohio. Participants have traveled from as far south as Gallipolis and as far north as Canal Winchester, to attend the clinics.
“Our main goal is to let these kids with disabilities have a good time, especially since it’s a place where they usually won’t get discriminated against because many people have a negative stigma. The look on the kids’ faces is priceless because they get so excited to come,” said Moos.
The program hopes to eliminate the negative stigma that many people associate with special needs individuals, especially by assimilating them into a community with similarly aged students. It also aims to encourage healthy, active lifestyles that may not be so easy to maintain for those with disabilities.
“It’s a really great way for them [my kids] to get active…. They look forward to it every week,” said Janet Wallisch, a parent of two children, John, 18, and Sara, 16, who are active participants in the program. “Has it made a difference? It’s something they look forward to. John can’t wait until it starts again in the spring, and I think it does. I think it’s nice for them to meet other kids.”
Working with individuals with disabilities ranging from autism to Down syndrome and Fragile-X Syndrome, the SCEC offers participants the opportunity to both play on a college campus and practice hands-on activities like dribbling, passing, rebounding and shooting. Since the first clinic earlier this semester, they have progressed from learning the basic mechanics of the sport to competing against each other in relay races and obstacle courses.
“I think it’s great that he can participate in something that’s dear to him,” said Margaret Hutzel, a parent whose son, Gabe Lazuka, is a participant in the program. “Gabe likes basketball, and I have seen skill development, absolutely.”
Since the first clinic with two participants, the program has excelled significantly, with an increasing number of participants of all ages with different talents, skill levels and goals. But one thing remains the same: their passion for basketball and a drive to improve their skills, in addition to developing long-lasting relationships with the volunteers.
“It’s been really good, so far, especially since there’s nothing really in Athens County [for younger special needs members] except for ATCO and Passionworks for adults. The school-aged kids pretty much get singled out and don’t have much to do,” said Moos.
And the overwhelming gratuity, from the parents’ amazement to the smiles on the kids’ faces when they do a “slam dunk,” is all that is needed to make the program rewarding for both the participants and the volunteers.
“I just love them [the volunteers]. They’re awesome, and it’s free… they are giving their time every other week to spend time with my kids just because,” said Wallisch. “I hate that they leave; I hate that they graduate because the kids get really attached to them. It’s sad. I would love for them to be able to stay in our town and be the teachers because they really are so awesome. It’s an awesome program and I think that people should take more advantage of it.”
Sometimes it’s difficult to go the extra mile, but the efforts of Moos and SCEC have proved that even the most seemingly simple gesture can make an incredible impact. They demonstrate that giving back is more than an I-got-arrested “required community service” kind of thing— it’s a chance to change your life and the lives of others around you. These students didn’t just hope to make a difference: they hooped to make a difference.
Interested in getting involved? Email Tony Moos at firstname.lastname@example.org. The last clinic of the semester is this Saturday from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. Next semester, clinics will be at Ping on Saturdays from 12 p.m. -1:30 p.m. All special needs youth are welcome to join.