Since this column is launching right after Christmas, I thought I’d start off with an article about Jeff Mayerson, a 1985 Livingston High School graduate, who embodies the spirit of giving.

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed reading Jeff Mayerson’s posts on Facebook about his work within the special needs community. His vision is impressive and unique, and I am proud to share what he has been working on with you!

Twice a month, I will share stories about people who grew up in Livingston and have remained in town, or who have moved away, as well as on those who live in town now, once did, and/or have a connection to Livingston. Click HERE to learn how to pitch stories for "Where Are They Now." 

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In the meantime – take a look at what Jeff Mayerson is up to:

 

Jeff Mayerson, Special Needs Champion and Inclusive Basketball League Pioneer

A favor for Jeff Mayerson’s son Brett in 2013 has become a labor of love for the 1985 Livingston High School (LHS) graduate, who now resides in Scotch Plains.

When Brett was a freshman in high school, he was shadowing a child with special needs that no one was passing the basketball to in a non-special needs game. Brett was frustrated and asked his father to come watch a game and offer suggestions on how to make the sport more fun and inclusive for his charge.

At the time, Jeff, who has been an athlete since his days at LHS, was coaching a few basketball teams. He had no training or experience with special needs children but was overwhelmed with compassion for the youth in Brett’s care and made a monumental choice to find a solution.

“Jeff has always had an interest in helping children and being a champion,” said Paul Mandel, of New Vernon, who has been Jeff’s close friend since Mount Pleasant Junior High. “If he sees an issue that hasn’t been addressed and feels in his heart it is important, he is motivated and compelled to address it.”

And that’s just what happened. Jeff decided that there needed to be a program where children with special needs could participate in sports with their peers. However, while there were already some programs like this available for soccer and other sports—Jeff found that there weren’t any good ones for basketball.

In addition, Jeff wanted to take his idea further by really teaching these children how to play basketball to the best of their abilities. According to Jeff, basketball is the perfect sport to teach technique, camaraderie and teamwork.

Jeff invited Brett and his younger son Adam, who was in 7th grade at the time, to work on this idea with him — and, the Wolves Basketball Academy was born.

The Beginning of Something Special

In the beginning, there were about 12-15 participants in the clinics, which Jeff says were chaotic. However, while he was worried, the parents of the participants assured him that their children were loving the program and getting so much out of it.

Many said it was the first time their children were really learning how to play the sport. Over time, more and more children joined the clinics. Now, Jeff runs 15 clinics a year.

During the clinics, each week, the children are paired with buddies and mentors at clinic stations, who provide one-on-one instruction and support.

“We look at the abilities of each child and set goals accordingly,” said Jeff. “If a child cannot dribble, the goal is to have him or her dribble once, then twice, no matter how many sessions it takes. If they can’t reach the basket, a mentor stands in front of them encouraging them to shoot at their hand, moving it higher and higher at the child’s pace. No goal is too small and every achievement they make is incredible.”

“This program is a great way for parents to see their children succeed,” said Mike Freeman, of Scotch Plains, who is Jeff’s partner in this endeavor.

Elisabeth Otero, whose son Diego, 14, participates said, “I’ve seen children here who laid down and screamed during their first few times here, that have now become engaged and are really playing basketball...Parents were frustrated before finding this program and now their children have improved their motor skills, socialization skills and have learned teamwork.”

“I love to see the looks on these children’s faces as they continue to improve and try new things,” said Jeff, adding that the mentors and OT’s who are part of the staff show the same level of joy on their faces as the players. “We have a great staff, including my partner Mike and long-time childhood friend Pete Eisen, who has never missed a clinic or game.”

“I love watching the kids play – they enjoy it so much," said Eisen, of Elmwood Park, adding, “It’s also great to see an old friend every week.”

Laura Martucci, an OT with the program, emitted so much enthusiasm as she exclaimed, “I absolutely love the program. It’s so fun and rewarding. I enjoy getting to know the kids and helping them succeed in sports.”

Jeff’s family and the participants’ parents love the program too!

Adam Mayerson, who is now 18 and studies at Cornell University, said he’s proud of the program as it encourages all types of players to come and interact. He added that he’s enjoyed watching the kids that come back each year grow up and improve.

Brett Mayerson, who is now 21 and studies at Ithaca College, said he never expected the program to become as big as it is and said he loves seeing all of the smiling faces.

Adding to the Mayerson pride, Karen, Jeff’s wife said, “I am so proud of the kids and happy the program exists. It not only gives the parents a break, but it makes them happy to see their kids progress and interact with their peers.”

“I like that Jeff reaches out to the parents to see how their kids are liking the program and how they are doing,” said Evelyn Guevara, of Linden, whose son Giovanni, 8, loves the clinics. “Jeff’s very attentive.”

“This program meets the needs of lots of different kids who wouldn’t have this opportunity to develop their skills at this level otherwise,” said Cranford resident Kelly Kleinhandler, whose 10-year-old son participates in the clinics.

What started out small has now grown into a huge endeavor. On December 22, 2018, more than 40 children were at the Newmark School gym learning how to play basketball.

To an onlooker, it appeared to be an ordinary clinic. The only difference was that there were no whistles blaring to jar the participants, instead, to get the players’ attention, Jeff employed tactics that he’d learned over the years as he became certified by USA Basketball and is a certified NBA Clinician).

The children rotated around stations learning how to dribble, shoot, guard, drive to the basket and more. At the end of the session, they were asked to gather for a group photo, which they happily obliged.

Another Idea Bloomed

However, this story doesn’t end here. Over the years, Jeff noticed that many of the clinic participants were becoming very good basketball players. He also noted that they not only enjoyed interacting with their peers, but with the many volunteers of all ages who worked with them weekly.

Another idea came to him. This time, in addition to growing the clinics, Jeff wanted to create inclusive leagues where special needs children and those without special needs could play the game that they shared a love for—as teammates. He started inclusive leagues at the middle school and high school levels.

The response was overwhelming. The players gained confidence, compassion and most of all camaraderie. And according to Jeff, these relationships lasted long after the last ball swished through the net. At school, teammates were giving each other high fives as they passed by in the hallways and talked about their games.

“The league has fostered an atmosphere of inclusion that is often missing in the classroom,” said Jeff. “These players have become friends and teammates that are involved in something very special that has continued to blossom over time.”

Many parents can’t thank Jeff enough for starting the inclusion league.

Tony Elkis of Chatham, whose son with a smile that could light up any room, plays in the league and has been doing the clinics for 3-4 years.

“My son likes the program and the coaches, but it’s the inclusion that really makes this program great,” he said. “Jeff really knows how to handle the kids and really just treats them like kids.”

“This inclusion program is excellent,” said Diego Otero of Union County, whose son Diego, 14, has been with the program since the inception of the clinics. “The program has done so much for my son’s confidence and has not only taught him how play the game, but how to be a team member.”

“It has been so rewarding to see varsity-level players participating in this inclusive league,” said Jeff. “I had a mom of a varsity player tell me how much her son enjoys writing out plays that highlight his teammates strengths and abilities, rather than ones where he or only the best players take all of the winning shots.

“I recently had a young man in college write me a letter telling me how much participating in the program has impacted his life. He asked how he could continue helping from afar. I also had a young mentor who was being bullied in school tell me that being a part of this program makes him feel better and that he thinks the kids bothering him in school should become mentors as it would teach them about people’s differences and perhaps affect change.”

Next Steps

This summer, Jeff plans to run a three day-a-week summer camp pilot program, over the span of three weeks, that teaches basketball, fitness and socialization behavior.

He also wants to spread the word about the inclusive basketball leagues and to teach others how to start them in their towns.

“I think there should be leagues like this in every town,” he said. “It’s not hard to do and it’s so rewarding. I’d love to see us playing on travel teams with other teams in the future.”

Tony Elkis said he agrees, adding, “Jeff goes out of his way and has done so many great things for these kids – we need more programs like this one.”

If you would like to start a basketball inclusion league in your town, or want more information on the clinics and/or camp, please contact Jeff at 917-991-5151 or info@wolvesbasketballacademy.com.

For more information, please see the website: www.wolvesbasketballacademy.com.