Long before I was married and had kids, I always imagined I’d be spending some quality time watching my children participate in some type of group sporting activity. Not that I had ever played organized sports as a kid-- there weren’t a lot of options for girls growing up then and I was pretty klutzy to being with—but it seemed like such a wholesome, warm-fuzzy type of family activity, complete with a pizza party for the team even if they lost.
As it turned out, our daughter had no interest in organized sports, and although she did play soccer one year at the Jewish middle school she attended (my joke was “bend it like Bracha”), the whole endeavor fell apart early on, and she went on to acting and theater activities.
And for Danny, our son with physical impairments, just getting around with his walker or having fun in the pool splashing around were big achievements. I heard about the Challenger division of Little League for kids with special needs, but couldn’t find one close to us, and all the Special Olympics programs seemed to take place during Shabbat.
Then, last fall, we were invited to join an inaugural AYSO soccer program in Beverly Hills for kids with special needs called the VIP program, started by two fathers who had wanted to get this program going for years. We even got to select Danny’s own number, and naturally, he picked “18” or chai. The volunteers and coaches figured out creative ways to get Danny to move across the field while he held on to his walker and kicked at the same time, although he did sit down for frequent breaks to play “hot potato” with the ball.
This week, the Friendship Circle of Angeles started a boys basketball program, and I wasn’t sure if this was going to be a good fit. But with gentle assistance from two amazing teenage volunteers, along with the coach and Rabbi Michy Rav-Noy, Danny participated, mostly from the sidelines. When the coach gave Danny the ball to make a pass, and everyone cheered him on, chanting “Danny, Danny”, his smile had no end. He came home very excited and kept saying, "baketball, baketball".
So I felt a strong connection to a family in Israel today when I read that Elad Gevandschnaider from Beersheva, a 24-year-old man with Down syndrome whom I had blogged about previously, was the recipient of the Award of Excellence from the IDF, Israel’s Defense Force, as part of Israel’s 65th anniversary. Elad has also been an active player at the Israel Tennis Center in Beersheva, and has won multiple Special Olympic medals around the world.
As the Israel Tennis Center press release says:
“Emotions ran high during the 65th IDF anniversary event, as the overflow crowd applauded for all of the award recipients, saving its loudest cheering for their very special soldier with Down’s Syndrome, Elad. The thunderous ovation did not stop until the Brigade Commander walked over to personally congratulate Elad for his achievement.”
Although people with developmental disabilities are exempt from army service, Elad volunteered and worked at an Israeli army equipment base. His family credits the Israel Tennis Center for helping Elad develop discipline, confidence and learning how to be more independent.