Student-athletes More than Mentors for Special-needs Children

Seattle Times – March 29, 2003
By Stephanie Dunnewind

Nicolas Horst, left, plays some one-on-one basketball with his mentor, Jaden Villnow, 17. Jaden was paired up with Nicolas through the Athletes for Kids mentor program at Skyline High School, which matches high-school athletes with elementary-school kids with special needs.

It’s Sunday afternoon, and Jaden Villnow, 17, could be studying from the thick calculus book lying on his family’s dining-room table. The Skyline High School junior was out at a dance last night, so he could be napping. Having just capped the basketball season with the school’s first state tournament, the Spartans guard — who also played cornerback and wide receiver for the football team — could be hanging out with friends.

Instead, he’s chatting with 9-year-old Nicolas Horst about Nick’s first Little League practice in the Challenger division for special-needs children. “Remember last summer, how well you were hitting?” Jaden asks.

For two or three hours every Sunday, Nick and Jaden play video games, make lunch or cookies and throw around a ball as part of the new Athletes for Kids mentor program, which pairs high-school athletes with elementary-school kids with special needs.

The high schoolers serve as role models, confidantes, inspirational figures, ambassadors and “special buddies.”

“Nick is so proud,” said his mom, Susan Horst. “He knows he has something special that other kids don’t, even though there are lots of things he can’t do that other kids can. He knows he has a special friend.”

Athletes are ‘big buddies’

When Nicolas gave a presentation to his class about how he had a stroke during heart surgery, initially was paralyzed from the neck down and now walks with a limp, Jaden came too, and explained that he was Nick’s “big buddy.” Jaden wore his football jersey and signed autographs for all the students.

The high schooler plans to help coach Nicolas during baseball practices and attend his games, just like Nicolas and his family watched many of Jaden’s football and basketball games. They sat right behind Jaden’s parents during one playoff game and cheered him on. Jaden came to Nick’s birthday party, and sometimes attends the younger boy’s school and church performances.

In its first year, the Athletes for Kids program runs only at Sammamish’s Skyline High School, where the six original mentors are training nine new members. Organizers would like to see it expand to other Eastside high schools and then jump across the lake.

The idea behind the program is this: Considered local heroes both at school and in the community, athletes use their star power off the court to boost the self-esteem and social stature of young special-needs kids.

“Whenever I interview a parent who wants a mentor for their children, I ask the parent one general question to satisfy myself that their child really belongs in our program: ‘Can you remember the last time your child was invited to another kid’s birthday party?’ ” said Ken Moscaret, Athletes for Kids founder. “Most say they can’t.”

While any high schooler could mentor a younger child, “we deliberately wanted athletes because they represent the glory people look up to,” Moscaret explained. The program focuses on elementary-school kids, since they’re still young enough to be “dazzled” by high-school athletes.

For Julie Lee’s 11-year-old son Cameron, who has obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorders, “the biggest change is someone values him for who he is.”

His mentor, Zach Habben, a three-sport Skyline junior, sometimes takes Cameron to his house to practice hitting balls in his batting cage.

“Their connection is definitely sports,” Lee said. Having an athlete friend allows kids to express and enjoy their love of sports vicariously if they can’t compete themselves.

Zach “comes over and makes me feel better,” Cameron said. “He’s helped me through my problems.” Sometimes those problems are personal and sometimes sports-related; Zach improved Cameron’s swing by advising him not to lunge at the ball.

When they first met, Cameron was really quiet. “Now, it’s ‘Hey, Zach, let’s do this, let’s do that,’ ” Zach said. “He’s come such a long way. He’s more confident now in everything.”

Mallory Graving, 16, a Spartans volleyball player, mentors a young girl with Down syndrome. While the two swim, play at the park, go for walks, watch movies and eat lots of ice cream, the most rewarding time is spent just talking.

“Sometimes kids don’t have someone to talk to besides their parents,” Graving said. “When I call her mom to set up a time to get together, she always wants to talk to me and tell me all about her day.”

At Jaden’s house, Nicolas doesn’t think Jaden is an angel — just a cool guy who has a PlayStation2. “I got my room all cleaned up so we can play Superman,” Jaden assures Nick.

When they head upstairs, Jaden quietly stands right beside Nicolas as he struggles up the staircase, not offering help, but staying nearby in case Nick loses his balance.

“I’ve watched Nick become a different person than he was a year ago,” Jaden said. “I’ve seen the determination in everything he does escalate. He doesn’t need me to help; he wants to do it by himself.”

While the benefits for the special-needs children are more obvious, mentors say they also gain from the experience. Jaden credits Nick for helping him become more patient and caring.

The kids’ disabilities also put teen’s own problems into perspective. Cameron “never has a frown on his face,” Zach said. “He’s so happy to see me.”

Parents of the teens appreciate that the program keeps their athletes grounded despite their sports fame and affluent lifestyles. “It’s been a blessing all around,” said Jaden’s mom, Serena.

“Teen athletes are perceived as selfish and self-centered, thinking they’re entitled to special treatment,” Moscaret said. “These mentors do just the opposite. They choose to spend their very limited free time with little kids who often don’t have any friends.”

All the mentors say they wondered before they started where they’d find the time. But once they got into it, allotting time hasn’t been an issue. “It’s where I really, really want to go,” Zach said. “I really love how I got to know Cameron and know his family. It’s just a lot of fun.”

Sometimes after pitching a double baseball practice, he’ll still go over to Cameron’s, icing his arm there. “I’m just down at their house, part of the family,” he said.

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