'Basketball Buddies' helps kids with Autism

Samuel Field Y Program pairs teens with special-needs kids

For 9-year-old Ben Odintz-Cohen, Thursday night at the is the place to be.

"He is so excited to come here," said his mother, Andrea. "He looks forward to this all week long not just for the basketball program but because it gives him a chance to socialize. His dribbling skills are getting pretty good too."

On Thursday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. every week, Basketball Buddies pairs teens and college-aged students from the community with children suffering from Autistic Spectrum Disorders. The program is run by the Samuel Field Y's assistant program director, Jeri Mendelsohn, and physical education director Nancy Amalfitano.

"It is an amazing program that helps these children interact with one another," Amalfitano said. "The parents are also able to form a bond with one another by sitting and watching their kids play, something they would not normally be able to do in a regular school setting."

The program is broken up into two segments of an hour each. The first runs for an hour with a younger group of 5 to 10 year olds. For another hour, the 10 to 14-year-old kids take to the gym floor. The last 15 minutes of each session includes a socialization period where kids sit and talk over apple juice and pretzels.

"We love it," said Basketball Buddies parent Debby Robertson. "It is great both socially and physically and the entire staff does an awesome job  with the kids. I also get to meet with other parents who are experiencing the same thing."

"It is a phenomenal program, very well organized," said Robert Burt , a parent of twin boys enrolled in 'Basketball Buddies'. "The teen kids who work the children are very good."

A veteran administrator at the Y, Mendelsohn echoed the can-do spirit which seems to best define this unique program.

"It is hard to say who gets more out of it, the children or the coaches," she said. "It definitely gives everybody a feeling of success though. You can see just by the interaction of everyone in the gym."


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