As our inclusion program Athletes 4 Autism gears up for an exciting 2014, I decided to take a look back at one of the first A4A events that I myself experienced firsthand. I will never forget the feeling of overwhelming pride I had not only for my school, but also for this organization. As you will read, the power of a smile really does go a long way.
Looking Back: How the Power of a Smile Transformed “Spectators” to “Athletes”
On Sunday, April 15, 2012, the basketball court in Boston University’s Case Athletic Center buzzed with excitement, as smiles danced across the faces of student-athletes and children alike. Athletes 4 Autism (A4A), the flagship inclusion program of TARF, had teamed up with Boston University to participate in a school-wide community service initiative. This Global Day of service event was designed with multiple goals in mind: to introduce families to the organization and to give Boston University athletes a chance to participate in a fun-filled charitable event. At this family-friendly day, A4A was out to prove that “life isn’t a spectator sport.”
The afternoon featured skill stations run by volunteers and athletes from various Terrier teams. Families and volunteers witnessed what some people would consider a “disabled” child succeed at what a “neurotypical” child can struggle with on a daily basis: conquering uncomfortable social situations. With the goal of bringing everyone together in friendship through sport, areas including “soccer shots” and “ fastest pitch” allowed participants to meet potential “mentors” while learning about what sports were offered through the program. Participants could play at a challenge course with members of the women’s lacrosse team, shoot some hoops with the basketball team, or even score a few goals on the nationally ranked men’s ice hockey team.
Perhaps the most rewarding part of the afternoon was witnessing student-athletes connect with the children and their families. It was easy to find volunteers striving to make sure everyone felt comfortable at the event. I watched as Sydney Godett, a member of the women’s lacrosse team, reached out to an uneasy little boy named John who was desperately clinging to his father. Unlike the rest of the happy attendees, John was not smiling. In a matter of minutes, Sydney made him feel comfortable in this strange environment by offering a warm smile and a helping hand.
Soon enough, they were facing off in the challenge course, not a shred of anxiety apparent on John’s exuberant face. Suddenly John beat Sydney to the finish line, a moment so pure and so full of joy that it brought a smile to everyone watching the race. “We were told not to be alarmed or offended if the children didn’t respond right away,” said Godett. Luckily for both Sydney and John, a lack of connection did not exist; in fact, they seemed to be quite a team.
Because A4A is open to children both on and off the autistic spectrum, there was a strong mix of families with children both on and off the spectrum, showing that children of every capability can successfully coexist when it comes to athletics. Cathy Mealey, the mother of both a child with autism (Liam) and a child without autism (Grace), was thrilled when she learned about A4A’s open event. “We make an effort to take Liam into the community as much as possible, and we try to find ways to get both him and Grace involved together.” Mealey believes that the key to Liam’s success is “all about finding the right partnerships and the right niche.” She notes that her son “has always been drawn to sports,” so this event was a perfect match for Liam.
As A4A’s Global Day of Service event came to a close, John stood at half court, asking members of the Men’s Ice Hockey team to play some basketball with him. In his eyes, these boys were not the star athletes of the Boston University community. He simply saw Wade Megan, Sean Escobedo, and Ryan Ruikka as big friends for him to play with. In one afternoon, John transformed from a “spectator” to an “athlete.” Little did he know, he was not the only one smiling now.