LIVINGSTON, NJ — While some teenagers are sleeping in or engaging in other activities on Saturday mornings, a special breed of local teens are reporting to duty each week to shadow special needs individuals playing sports at Monmouth Court Community Center in Livingston.

Developed in 2011 by Mark Silance, Shining Stars has given children, teens and young adults with special needs an opportunity to participate in sports geared toward their personal needs in a safe environment where everyone shines and there’s no pressure to win.

Shining Stars is divided into three age groups: one session is for 5-to-9 year olds; one for 10-to-16 year olds; and one for young adults 17 years and older, who often participate in the same session as the 10-to-16 year olds.

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Since the program’s inception, Livingston students ages 13 and older have been trained to assist the individuals in the program. The volunteers act as shadows, ideally in a 1:1 ratio, helping each Shining Stars member to hone his or her athletic skills.

Some of the activities they help oversee include seasonal sports—such as soccer, basketball, floor hockey and T-ball/kickball—as well as cooking lessons, Special Olympics track and field training, a Nature and Safety Class held at the trail behind the Livingston Senior and Community Center in the spring and fall and more.

Jessica Furman, a Livingston High School junior who has been volunteering with the Shining Stars Shadow program since seventh grade, said that her experience has led to her aspiration to become an occupational therapist. She noted that Shining Stars is a great opportunity for her to observe and to learn how to help people with special needs improve their motor skills.

“My experiences at Shining Stars have led me to choose occupational therapy as my career since I want to be involved in the lives of special needs individuals long after I leave the program,” she said. “My time spent at Shining Stars has allowed me to experience children with various ability levels and I have learned how to help each of them.

“Shining Stars has definitely taught me to value the small accomplishments in life, as well as helping me understand that everyone is perfect in their own ways. Having been with the program for years now, it has been very rewarding to see the progress that each individual child has made.”

One mother whose child has been a Shining Stars participant for six years said she has been “delighted with the program and the shadows” from the start.

“The coaches are dedicated and know how to motivate and assist the participants,” she said. “The shadows are encouraging and friendly which means a great deal to the children (and their parents). Shining Stars also gives the children team shirts and they receive metals at the end of each sport season.”

Jennifer Quirk, Adaptive Recreation Coordinator for the Township of Livingston, has a special education background and took the helm of the program two years ago. The program has expanded greatly since she was hired as Livingston's first-ever full-time Adaptive Recreation Coordinator. Coach Meghan Myers also facilitates the sports classes.

For more information, to become a volunteer or sign up for the Shining Stars program, contact Quirk at jquirk@livingstonnj.org or 973-535-7925, ext. 403, or visit the website by clicking HERE.