Rockville Centre’s Hoops for All program wrapped up on Feb. 4, but not before giving children and teenagers with special needs the opportunity to have fun on the court.
Patty Basile, a 19-year village resident, started the program four years ago when she realized that some of the children she had worked with as a pediatric physical therapist didn’t have a setting locally at which to play basketball. Her daughter also needed volunteer hours, and the idea was born. “I just felt that we both love basketball,” Basile said. “How about we make it more meaningful.”
She worked with the Rockville Centre Basketball League to get it started, and has helped run four to six sessions per year for different age groups at the John A. Anderson Recreation Center. On the morning of Feb. 4, the younger kids in grades 3 to 8 took the court first, with those in grades 9 through 12 — in some cases up to age 21 — starting an hour later.
About 50 players and 30 volunteers currently participate in the program, Basile said. Student-athletes from South Side High School’s junior varsity and varsity boys’ basketball teams have volunteered for the program, as well as the Sacred Heart Academy girls’ squad. Girls from the South Side Middle School basketball team donated their time at last weekend’s session. “They’re matched up with a specific kid each time,” said Jerry D’Angelo, coach of South Side’s boys’ varsity team. “When I see them walk in, these special-needs kids are calling them by name, they’re high-fiving and hugging them and to me it’s like, wait a second, almost a little friendship has built up in these four sessions.”
Participants learn dribbling, passing and shooting, Basile said, and also play in informal scrimmages. During the skills exercises, Basile and the volunteers will challenge the players and push the limits. This includes dribbling two balls at once, she added, urging them to keep their head up by saying the number of fingers a volunteer is holding up, or even having them catch a tennis ball while dribbling.
Basile recalled teaching one child, who can only use arm, how to dribble between his legs. “Boom, he’s picking it up,” she said. “The kids have now learned to push [themselves]. Just because they’re considered [having] special needs, many of them are very good. They need to be pushed and they love the challenge.”
The clinic also offers a supportive environment. One boy with Down Syndrome, Basile said, takes longer than most to dribble down the court. He will then shoot as everyone watches. “They all cheer for him, and two of them will come over and hug him and say ‘Good job,’” Basile said. “That’s just how sweet it is.”
The Tommy Brull Foundation, which raises money to benefit people and organizations that are dedicated to serving people with physical, mental and emotional challenges on Long Island, donated T-shirts for players and volunteers, as well as trophies.
D’Angelo said it’s fun to see his players who volunteer interact with the participants, and said that it teaches them an important life lesson. “I hope they learn a little more on empathy,” he said. “This world needs more of it, and I’ve told my teams that I’m more proud of them when I see them working with these special-needs kids than when we win a county championship.”