CHATHAM, NJ - A new group of athletes is making great strides on the track in Chatham.

As part of a pilot program offered by Chatham Recreation and the CHS Sports Buddies, 12 second- and third-grade athletes are now participating in the Spring Track and Field Program for Children with Special Needs.

Each athlete is paired with a Chatham High School “Sports Buddy” who acts as a one-on-one guide for various track and field events, such as low hurdles, relays, javelin throw, and long jump.

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The new Sport Buddies club was created by junior, Patrick Mortensen, a cross country and  track team member who began to see a need for such a program last fall, after helping 7-year-old Allie Gyves train for the St. Pat’s One-Mile Fun Run. Mortensen saw Allie’s  determination and pride blossom as she got used to longer distances. Allie’s special education teacher also noticed a positive change in her classroom performance as Allie’s endurance grew.

Mortensen, along with several parents, reached out to the Chatham Recreation Department and their response was overwhelmingly positive.

Halfway through the 8-week season, the athletes are already showing their enthusiasm for the program. Nine-year-old Christopher Tempore’s dad, Chris, says, “He loves it. He was never an outdoors kid. He’s done more running in the past few weeks than he has since he learned to walk. Every Sunday he looks forward to this. If I put out his regular clothes he says, ‘Where’s my track shirt?’”

The low athlete-to-Sports Buddy ratio is also benefitting the athletes on many levels.

“The individual mentoring is really important for J.J.,” says Jeff Horan, father of J.J., 9.  “He got a little lost in the bigger team sport programs.”

Kristen Stromberg, a third grader at Southern Boulevard School, looks forward to practice each week.

“She’s really connecting with her volunteer coach, Theresa,” says her dad, Gary Stromberg. “It gets her out, gets her active. We’ve had some false starts in other programs like softball. It was too slow for her. Here she’s always on the go. The one on one is what makes it work for her, also the variety, doing multiple things.“

For Paul Peterson, 9, the program has given him a new-found sense of pride and a will to compete.

“He is really having a good time,” says his mother, Nancy Greco Peterson. “He likes to throw the javelin. He feels proud of himself that he can make it all the way around (the track). I am so happy because it’s something he can do the rest of his life. Also it’s something he can do on his own, without a pre-arranged play date. My one son wants to arrange family/friend baseball games. Paul wants family/friend track competitions with javelin and relay races.”

Based on the success and clear need for this program Sports Buddies is hoping to expand to other sports in the fall.

Sports Buddies volunteers include Teresa Clark, Justin Corbet, Paul Coyne, Alec Gonzalez, Kelly Gyves, Grant Hauck, Kerin Hynes, Simone Kirton, Paul Malatesta, and Will Mitchell. The club is sponsored by Chatham High School Track and Field/Cross Country Coach Nick DeSantis.

Athletes are working towards the goal of completing the Annual Fishawack One-Mile Fun Run on June 13.  

For more information about Sports Buddies contact Chatham Recreation at 973-635-7066.