Matching Special-needs Kids with Teenage Athletes

Seattle Post-Intelligencer – June 6, 2007
By Mary Swift

It happened a year ago this month on a blue-sky day filled with false promise of perfection. Aubrey Jensen, 17, and her 14-year-old sister, Alexa, were at a church retreat.

Alexa, a strong swimmer who medaled in the sport in Special Olympics, was in the water. Then — she was gone. And in the minutes that followed, as the terror of what could happen collided with the tragedy of reality, Aubrey felt her heart break.

She and Alexa had a bond: Alexa was a special-needs child with brain damage; Aubrey was the protective big sister who went out of her way to include her little sister.

Even riding the bus to elementary school, Aubrey would invite Alexa to share her seat, just as she often invited Alexa into her life. Losing Alexa, she says, “was devastating.” But it also was life changing. “It definitely affected me,” she says. “My perspective on life totally changed. Every day I’m so grateful for my family. I try to spend as much time as I can with them. Relationships were always important, but now they just mean a lot more.”

Count among them her relationship with 10-year-old Gabby Warnock, a fourth-grader at Apollo Elementary in the Issaquah School District. Aubrey, now 18, is a senior at Issaquah High School. Bright, articulate and accomplished, she has a near-perfect 3.95 grade-point average and eight varsity letters. She was a guard on the school basketball team, which finished fifth in the state this year, and a setter on the school’s volleyball team, which also finished fifth in state.

Aubrey was one of six students who helped found a chapter of Athletes For Kids at Issaquah High. The Sammamish-based non-profit, founded in 2001 at Skyline High School, matches children with special needs with high school athletes willing to volunteer as role models and mentors. The program has nearly 100 mentor-athlete volunteers in six Eastside schools.

Three years ago, Aubrey was matched with Gabby, who struggles in school with reading.

“Gabby really needed a role model and a friend,” Aubrey says. “The first time we got together, she told me all her favorite movies, her favorite foods. Then she made me tell her mine. We spend about eight hours a month together. We’ve gone roller-skating, to the park, to the movies. We’ve painted our nails. We just hang out. “Gabby is just a really sweet girl. She’s fun.”

Aubrey recalls the first time she met with Gabby after Alexa’s drowning. “I was really emotional. She could tell I really hurt bad. She was just so sorry. She hugged me.”

Cynthia Warnock, Gabby’s mom, says Aubrey’s impact on Gabby is obvious.

“Aubrey is wonderful,” Warnock says. “She’s been a big boost to Gabby’s self-esteem. She’s just amazing as a role model.”

This fall, Aubrey heads off to Brigham Young University to study exercise science. Athletes for Kids is arranging to match Gabby with a new athlete-mentor. But Gabby and Aubrey are hardly done as friends. “We’ll hang out this summer,” Aubrey says. “We’ll stay in touch after I get to college.

“Most of the people I know think doing this is cool,” she says. “When people ask about this, I tell them it’s just a great experience. If you are willing to put out the time and effort, you would get so much more out of it than your kid does. I’ve gotten so much out of knowing Gabby.”

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