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Jewish Journal

After School Is Prime Game Time for Kids of All Needs

by Sharon Schatz Rosenthal

August 17, 2006 | 8:00 pm

Coach Kathryn Gaskin, center, and other coaches and athletes

Coach Kathryn Gaskin, center, and other coaches and athletes

Kathryn Gaskin's blonde braid bounces against her sweatshirt as she rounds second base under the afternoon sun. The 12-year-old's obvious enthusiasm is not for her own athletic pursuits but for those of Angeline, a teen with Down syndrome, whom Gaskin coaches in an after-school program called Prime Time Games.

When the batter hits a grounder, Gaskin gently prompts a beaming Angeline to run. The excited youngster, clad in pink sweats and a T-shirt, jogs down the softball field and plants herself firmly on third base. She looks back at Gaskin, who claps and whoops. The two share a smile.

"I wanted to be a coach because I like sports," said Gaskin of her involvement with the Prime Time Games program.

The Pacific Palisades resident initially took on the responsibly to fulfill an outreach requirement for her bat mitzvah last spring. The experience has satisfied more than a ceremonial obligation.

"I feel good because I'm helping other people," Gaskin said.

Gaskin is among a group of preteens and teenagers who serve as peer sports coaches for Prime Time Games, a program of the Los Angeles-based Team Prime Time. Most of the coaches are at-risk children from low-income areas of the city, taking part in Team Prime Time's intervention programs that combine academics, athletics and leadership training. Prime Time Games was created a year ago to include students with special needs. While the athletes clearly get a chance to shine in group sports, the young coaches thrive, as well.

"The coaches are truly responsible -- with the knowledge that adults are there to support them -- for the total experience of another child, and they are treated with respect and acknowledged for what they accomplish," said executive director Peter Straus. "We have yet to figure out who benefits more, coach or athlete."

While the majority of Prime Time Games coaches are at-risk kids from the Daniel Webster Middle School in West Los Angeles, a Title I school where the weekly after-school program is held, a small percentage are Jewish children fulfilling the community service portion of their bar and bat mitzvah requirements. The respectful interaction between the athletes and coaches is also reflected in the interaction between the Webster students and their Jewish co-coaches.

Straus, a veteran teacher and sports coach at various L.A. schools, also runs a summer camp called Prime Time Sports Camp. He noticed the void in after-school programs for at-risk kids at the middle school level and in 2001 created Team Prime Time to do something about it.

"The emphasis is not on the outcome of the games," said Straus, adding that no one keeps score. "It's the interaction of the kids. They bring out the best in each other."

Prime Time Games began attracting the pre-bar mitzvah crowd as Jewish kids filtered through Straus' summer camp. Other coaches discovered the program because of their siblings' participation.

Adam Sperber-Compean, who will become a bar mitzvah in September, learned about the program when his autistic brother became involved. "I'm here for him, and he listens to me," said Adam, on coaching his younger sibling.

Some of the coaches know one another from Straus' summer camp and others attend the same school. Straus attempts to pair together coaches with these commonalities. When that's not possible, Straus is optimistic.

"With the focus being on sports and the kids you're helping, it breaks down barriers pretty quickly," he said.

When the program resumes in October, coaches and athletes will meet one afternoon a week at Webster School. The coaches will attend a training program, where they will learn about working with special-needs children.

Mady Goldberg's daughter, Elena, an 8-year-old with motor and processing issues, has blossomed in the program.

"She loves it," said Goldberg, a Pacific Palisades resident. "She's had the opportunity to play team sports, and in any typical scenario, that would be difficult for her."

Goldberg said that practicing her skills in a supportive environment has helped Elena progress physically. In addition, she developed a close bond with her two coaches. As a result, Elena's self-esteem has soared.

Jonah Gadinsky, 12, who has volunteered since December, vows to continue coaching after his bar mitzvah in November. "I definitely see how lucky I am do to be able to do the things that others can't do," said Jonah, a Westwood resident who is starting seventh grade.

After working almost exclusively with Bobby, a budding basketball player, Jonah is hooked.

"I feel really good for kids when they make a basket, just seeing their faces light up," said the young coach.

Prime Time Games will resume in October.

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