Sports program helps special needs kids join the game

When “Mighty” Mike Simmel was a kid, he thought he would never be able to pursue his dream of becoming a basketball player.  Diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of 2, he had a seizure when he was 16 years old while participating in a sports camp, and was told to go home and not come back.

Refusing to give up on his dreams, Simmel learned to manage his condition through medication and therapy, and in 2001, he became a member of the world-famous entertainment basketball team, the Harlem Wizards. Four years after joining the Wizards, Simmel decided that no child should ever feel like they couldn’t be a part of the game, so he created the Bounce Out the Stigma Project.

“(These kids) don't think that anybody’s like them, and then they come here, and they're like just like, ‘Oh wow! You know what, you're just like me... and we're all together, we're all as one, like one big team,’” Simmel said.

The Bounce Out the Stigma Project allows children with autism, ADD, ADHD, epilepsy, diabetes, and other conditions to become part of a basketball team and play with other children who have similar medical issues.  According to Dr. Walter Molofsky, chief of pediatric neurology at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, team sports like basketball have many benefits for children with special needs.

“These children need to develop their fine motor skills, their gross motor skills, their endurance,” Molofsky said.  “It helps them with their exercise; it helps with fitness; it helps with socialization.  You want them to have the same experiences as their siblings and as their friends (who) don’t have the challenges that they have.”

Alice Wright has enrolled her 14-year-old daughter Rebecca in the Bounce Out the Stigma Project for the past six years.  She said she has seen many positive changes in her daughter, who is on the autism spectrum.

“She’s really grown socially.  She’s grown in her skills,” Wright said.  “She’s realized she is capable of doing things.  She can take the confidence that she’s had here, she can take the skills that she’s had here, and she can start a new school year with all of that.  And it’s going to be a good experience.  She’s excited about going to high school, and that’s everything to me.”

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