This may not be about the Devils, but I thought it was an interesting bit of hockey-related news worthy to blog on.
In today’s edition of the Asbury Park Press, columnist Steve Edelson had a story on the front page of the sports section about the Bruins’ Connor Clifton and the work he is doing with local special needs kids.
Clifton, a Matawan native, attended Christian Brothers Academy before playing at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut and eventually the NHL and the Bruins. He came within a game of winning the Cup last year with Boston, suffering a game seven loss to the St. Louis Blues.
But off the ice, he is a part of the Autism Movement Project, a “brainchild of three special needs professionals who are part of the local sports community” according to Edelson, “the Autism Movement Project has been making a difference in the lives of special needs kids and adults for nearly two years.”
Edelson described the project as a way to get kids with special needs playing sports and feeling comfortable in the whole environment of participating. He said that in addition to Clifton, the project also brings in other local athletes to work with kids. Included among them are “Rutgers national champion wrestler Anthony Ashmault; former Monmouth University basketball star Justin Robinson, now playing in France; former Jets tight end Neal Sterling, a Belmar native who was also a Monmouth University standout; and former Jackson Memorial hoops standout Eric Carter, who played at Delaware and has been vying for an NBA contract.”
Clifton appeared at St. Denis Elementary School in Manasquan where he played floor hockey with the kids and adults on the school gym basketball court. According to Edelson, the Boston d-man was there to participate in drills with the roughly 30 assembled kids and adults, teaching them a little about hockey, as well as take photos and sign autographs.
Brandon Sierchio, who is a Toms River native who played soccer at Widener University and now works at Search Day Program (which Edelson said is “a school for autistic children in Ocean Township”), is one of the founders of the Autism Movement Project and told Edelson: “It is very rewarding. We have kids that come in and the parents are like, ‘I don’t know if they’re going to like it.’ But then they come back because they say they’re having fun and have a reduced anxiety playing sports and doing fitness, and they start surprising themselves sometimes. Sometimes we’ll say, ‘remember when that kid first started?’ And now you look at him and he’s independent, and he’s doing all the exercises well.”
Edelson said that the program was co-founded two years ago by Sierchio and Vincent Balestrieri of Wall Township. Balestrieri is “a sports psychologist and behavior analyst” as well as Balestieri’s “brother Nic, a Belmar native and former football and track and field star at Manasquan High School, who recently completed his master’s degree in applied behavior analysis.”
Vincent Balestrieri told Edelson that they “were already doing this. We used to run this program as part of a clinical practice that was closed down. And of all the services that the practice provided the fitness and sports program was the one that parents contacted me and said, ‘so you think you could just start that fitness and sports program up again?’ That kind of kicks started (sic) it.”
Sierchio mentioned that “there is nothing like this out there. There are challenger leagues, or you can pay a trainer to work out with your special needs child at your house, but you’re not getting the same thing. We have a social component where we facilitate social skills with kids who have deficits in that area, as well as giving them a safe space to play sports.”
Sierchio continued to Edelson: “some of the kids who are more cognitively aware of their surroundings and how they feel, when they play a sport they may feel uncomfortable and have some anxiety associated with it. We do our best here to coach them at their individual level and allow them to succeed so they want to keep participating in sports.”
For Clifton’s part, he told Edelson: “It’s awesome. I didn’t know what to expect today and it turned out to be a great hour. It was awesome seeing the kids and play some hockey with them. I got a lot of assists out there and they were scoring a lot of goals.”
The Autism Movement Project is a “twice-weekly program” that is “currently transitioning to a non-profit.” It does not feature athletes working with kids in every one of their sessions, but the founders see changes in the participants. As Vincent Balestrieri told Edelson, “It sneaks up on us. Sometimes you’re just like ‘wait a minute, six months ago he couldn’t do that.’ Week-to-week it’s small, baby steps, and then one day you see that they’ve made tremendous gains.”
To learn more about the Autism Movement Project, please visit www.ampfitnj.com.