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Special Needs Athletic Program Created By Kids, For Kids

SNAP is a meaningful experience for the helpers and the helped.

On Wednesday, Feb. 9, we named Morristown High School freshman Zack Certner of Morris Township our "Whiz Kid" of the week for his work as president and director of the Special Needs Athletic Program, or SNAP. The Whiz Kid article barely gave us room to scratch the surface of this non-profit organization, so that's why we're back with a more in-depth interview.

The seeds of SNAP were planted several years ago, when Matt Certner, Zack's older brother, started a series of free athletic clinics that allowed children with special needs to participate in sports. It was a "by kids–for kids" group, with high school athletes running the clinics. Zack was involved from the time he was 9-years-old.

Along the way, the group gained non-profit status and took on its current name. "It was understood from the beginning that I would take over," Zach Certner said, speaking of the time when his brother set off for college. "I had been working on it for 3 or 4 years and I knew that when Matt left, I would be in school for another five years."

Mom Sandy Certner, who helps run the program, said that her youngest son's first night in charge of the sports clinics was a bit of a shock, but inspired him to expand the group in a different direction. She said that he entered the gym asking "Is everybody excited about school starting? I am!" and was surprised by the lack of enthusiasm from the special needs students, who started sharing stories about how they were ostracized in school. "He came home very sad," she said, but wanting to take action. 

"I was pretty much the same age as these guys," Zack Certner said. "I saw how they were isolated during lunch and ostracized in school. I decided there was a need for awareness and acceptance seminars. I wanted to train everyone about it."

His first effort was a program for fourth and fifth graders at Sussex Avenue School. Asked how he broached the subject of accepting those with special needs, he said, "First I tell them, 'I want you to close your eyes and imagine that it's your first day of school. You don't know anyone. Other kids are congregating and talking, but for you, the teachers are your only friends.'"

"Then I ask them, 'How do you feel?' and they say they feel bad. I ask them how many birthday parties do you think special needs kids go to and they say whatever number they go to. Then I tell them that special needs kids usually go to zero or one birthday party. I can see their jaws drop. That is the first big eye-opener of the presentation."

"I ask how many people know somebody with autism or other special needs and just about everybody puts up their hands. Then I ask how many people know the definition of autism and every kid puts their hand down. I tell them that one of every 94 kids in New Jersey is diagnosed with autism.

"We do some scenarios where the kids have to simulate not being able to talk but trying to communicate with a friend. You can see them become frustrated because they're not allowed to talk. We do interactive workshops that put them in the shoes of special needs kids. We have goggles for distorted vision and we use mirrors to simulate dyslexia. I tell them about famous people who dealt with disabilities such as Stephen Hawking, FDR, Helen Keller."

Certner said that, at first, he was not comfortable speaking in front of a group. "I started watching other people doing it at assemblies and things like that." he said. "Eventually I got comfortable enough to go to Morristown High School and do a presentation for the gym teachers about having an adaptive gym program."

"Zack came up with the idea that varsity athletes should be able to leave their gym classes to spend time in gym clasess with special needs children because everyone already knows that they're getting plenty of exercise as athletes," Sandy Certner said.

When he spoke to the gym teachers, Zack Certner said, "I was in a wheelchair. I showed them what I could do. I showed that I could wheel around the track when other kids were running. When they were doing sit ups, I showed how I could use weights or bands.  When they're playing ball, I could swing a bat. People don't realize that most of these kids, their upper bodies are fine but they're just sitting to the side or working the score board."

Despite Zack's interest in expanding the scope of the organization, that has not come at the expense of the original sports clinics. Right now, two sports clinics run every week or every other week, depending on the season and the sport. About 80 varsity athletes volunteer as mentors at the clinics. According to Zack Certner, "We do soccer, basketball and baseball. At each clinic, we have three different stations. For example, at the basketball clinic we"ll have a shooting, a passing and a dribbling station. For baseball we have hitting, pitching and catching." On clinic nights, younger children come from 6–7 p.m. and the older kids from 7–8 p.m.

Tae kwon do, art, swimming and yoga have been added to the offerings. The sports clinics are and will remain free, but there is a $20 fee for the art class and $30 for tae kwon do.

"The sport clinics take place at Sussex Avenue School, art is at Alfred Vail,  tae kwon do is at St. Peter's church, swimming is at the YMCA and yoga takes place in a private studio," Sandy Certner said. "We hope that St. Peters Church is the future home of SNAP. They're giving us a room that we can use in place of a gym. It would make things much easier because we could store all of our things in one place."

Zack Certner believes its important for all kids to give back. "One of my goals is to let kids know that just because you're disabled or have special needs, that doesn't mean that you can't give back to the community." Last year he took a group of kids to a soup kitchen and this year the group collected $2500 of sports equipment for an organization in Tanzania that helps special needs children.

Zack Certner's next goal is to provide training for law enforcement personnel. Having already provided a session for the Millburn Police Department, he said, "We want to go into other police departments. I asked them what they are uncomfortable with in dealing with special needs people and we sort of gave on-the-spot training." Sandy Certner explained that sirens and flashing lights can create sensory overload in certain autistic children, causing problems in even routine interactions with police.

SNAP earned a prestigious Autism Speaks Families Service Community Grant for 2011 which was $13,250. "It's from a national group," Zack said, "it has to be used within the year it will go toward equipment for the training and packets and brochures that explain autism .

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