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Young Athletes at The Connection

The Connection for Women and Families – a non-profit 501 (c) 3 human service organization – is committed to providing programs and services to everyone in the community regardless of physical ability or economic circumstance. Among the countless community services initiatives including Pathways, English as a Second Language and Heart-to-Heart is the Young Athlete program – part of The Connection’s Special Needs outreach.

Co-sponsored by the NJ Special Olympics, the Young Athlete program was created in consultation with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, to meet the physical and developmental needs of children, ages 2 ½ and up, in the areas of physical activity and play, with an emphasis on sports skill development. The Young Athlete program was conceived by Cynthia Gavenda, from the Junior League of Summit and presented to Amy Gula – the Special Needs Program Director – about four years ago. Now, under the guidance of Gula, the young athletes are assisted by parents and volunteers from the Millburn High School Hockey Team every Saturday afternoon.

The Millburn Hockey Team began volunteering with the Young Athlete program when Rene Papparian from the team’s booster club contacted Gula looking for volunteer opportunities on a weekly basis that the team could participate in every year.

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“It’s rewarding to see their progress from week to week,” commented Richard Koppenaal, a Young Athlete program volunteer for the past three years and Millburn Hockey Team player. The program consists of activities that promote appreciation of fitness and encourages social development. Koppenaal, along with the other volunteers aid the games and exercises whether physical – like stretching and climbing on the gymnastic apparatus or social – like introducing themselves.

Parents Betsy Nautly of Mountainside and Brian Cullen of Union have participated in programs with their children at The Connection for years, starting with Parent/Child swim lessons then moving to Adaptive Aquatics and now come weekly for the Young Athlete program. Caroline Nautly (age 9) and Rylina Cullen (age 9) have both participated in the program since age 4. Mrs. Nautly noted that Caroline’s weekly participation in the class has “helped with her coordination and development.”

Both parents also agree that the class helps with socialization – not just for their children but for them as well. “There is a sense of community here; It’s a family oriented place and I’m grateful to have the time to share and communicate with other parents and develop friendships just like the kids,” said Cullen.

There is no mistaking the fun had by Caroline, Rylina and each of the children involved in the program – with the help from loyal volunteers and with encouragement from parents – the Young Athletes sing along, clap their hands and smile through each exercise.

In addition to youth and adult classes, The Connection offers a variety of special needs programs including: Variety Hour (for ages 10+), swimming lessons (for ages 3 – 8), basketball (for teens), and a monthly Teen Club/Teen Social (for ages 13-24).

For more information about The Connection, its programs and schedule visit:, call: 908-273-4242 or stop by 79 Maple St. in Summit.

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