Giving Back

"Young Athletes" Gives Clark's Special Needs Kids a Program to Call Their Own

Young athlete Logan Bloom with program coach Mary Lillis. Credits: Susan Roselli Bonnell
Max Jacobsen was having fun with balloons during the first "Young Athletes" class at Clark Recreation.  Credits: Susan Roselli Bonnell

CLARK, NJ – Clark Recreation held its first Young Athletes™ class on Saturday morning to the delight of its young participants and their parents.  The free five-week program provides organized sport and play for children with intellectual disabilities and is an offshoot of Special Olympics.  15 Clark youth are registered in the class that is designed to enhance the children's gross motor, intellectual, and social skills.

“My philosophy is ‘something for everyone’ and we are very excited to offer a program for special needs children,” Clark Recreation Director Ralph Bernardo said.

Jennifer Jacobson, whose son Max was happily engaged in a game, first approached Bernardo about a program designed specifically for special needs children.

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“There’s not much to do with special needs kids,” said Jacobsen. “You can’t take them to regular gymnastics classes or do regular sports.  We were going to Rahway, to Cranford.  There wasn’t anything here. I asked Ralph about it.”

Clark Preschool teachers Mary Lillis and John Mongiello immediately volunteered to coach the program.  Lillis, who was recently named a district teacher of the year, teaches the district’s Special Education ABA class and Mongiello is the school’s gym teacher.

"After hearing about the program, John and I were more than happy to volunteer our time to have such a great program in the district for our students,” Lillis said.  “The ‘Young Athletes’ program is a wonderful opportunity for students with special needs to strengthen their gross motor and social skills, and more importantly come together with their peers to have fun!”

The children participate in a variety of gross motor skills including balance, jumping, throwing, catching, kicking, striking, walking, and running. The group was happily bouncing and chasing balloons. Parents and community volunteers help to run games and interact with the children.

“We truly look forward to the next few weeks of the 'Young Athletes' program and having these sessions impact our athletes and the community," Lillis said. 

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