RANDOLPH, NJ -- Back on Saturday Feb. 29, before the COVID-19 Pandemic shut down the world as we know it, the Special Needs Athletic Program (SNAP) based in Morristown, New Jersey, hosted their annual “Lean to Skate” event at Aspen Ice in Randolph. More than 50 youth volunteers from the NJ Freeze and Randolph ice hockey programs joined SNAP mentors and took to the ice to be “buddies” - helping kids with special needs from all over New Jersey enjoy an afternoon of ice skating and friendship.

SNAP is a nonprofit organization created to inspire youth to work together through athletics, peer mentoring and educational programs. One of SNAP's goals, is to raise awareness about the impact students can make in the lives of children with autism and other disabilities.

“Over the years it became apparent to families with special needs children and autism that the traditional methods of inclusion have not met the needs of these children, and it was with this in mind that SNAP was founded,” said Kim Strasser, who has been involved with SNAP since its inception in 2008. “The focus of SNAP is to incorporate a kids-helping-kids model into all aspects of our programming and create a culture of acceptance of all children.”

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In what has become an annual event that is now in its fifth year, Aspen Ice generously donated the ice time, skates, hot chocolate and a pizza party. The Freeze players came from many surrounding towns, including Roxbury, Denville, Morristown, Parsippany, Madison and Randolph. Additional hockey players from Randolph's high school team and town youth recreation program also took part as volunteers.

Close to 50 SNAP participants with varying degrees of skating ability laced up their skates for the event, which took place just three weeks before social distancing became the new normal. Some skated entirely under their own power, while others held hands or locked arms with the hockey players for support. Then there were others happy to take a seat in a folding chair and enjoy the ride as the volunteers took turns sliding them around the ice.

“A few years ago, a Freeze hockey team wanted to find a way to donate their time and energy to help others in the community,” said Nancy Zaklukiewicz, who is friends with Strasser and helps coordinate the event on behalf of Aspen and the Freeze. “Our players donate their time helping other kids learn how to skate in a setting designed just for them. It’s awesome to see our hockey players forgetting about how fast they can skate and instead, put all their effort into helping another kid. It was a great experience for everyone involved and the smiles all around were priceless.”

For SNAP participants, the benefits their programs offer start with helping kids get engaged in sports and healthy physical activity when they otherwise may not be able to. The ultimate goal is the inclusion of children with special needs into the schools, communities and recreation activities. Byproducts of that are making friends, improving social skills, and providing a platform for their families to connect and support one another.

For the mostly teen volunteers who help make the SNAP programs successful, they can use their power to enrich the lives of the others, help spread awareness and acceptance of others, and learn from participating in fundraising and helping others. The mentor learns what it is like to have a disability and comes away with a better understanding about various disabilities.

While all SNAP events are organized and supervised by adults, most are structured so that the teen volunteers handle 90 percent of the interaction and instruction to foster and strengthen the kids-teaching-kids model.

“Being part of this event made me feel proud, because I was doing something to help out with a good cause,” said SNAP mentor and Randolph High School hockey player Ryan Manderioli. “That fueled me to try to be the best mentor I can, knowing that I was helping all these kids have a great day.”

For anyone who has a child or friend with special needs who is interested in learning how they can get involved with attending SNAP events, contact Kim Strasser at 908-892-6771 or kimstrasser@gmail.com or visit www.snapclinicsorg.


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