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Young Athletes Program a Win-Win

A collaborative effort between Rutgers and the Special Olympics helps young athletes achieve their dreams

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Manny Cajigas is not one to sit on the sidelines. As much as the 3-year-old Florence youngster loves watching his six older siblings kicking, throwing, batting, running and tumbling, for him, the real action is on the field.

Manny is not letting Down syndrome stop him. Every Saturday, he participates in the Young Athletes Program at the Special Olympics New Jersey Sports Complex in Lawrenceville - with his siblings there, rooting him on.

His mother, Amy, recalls a young boy who got a late start developmentally. When she learned about Young Athletes, she enrolled Manny immediately. Soon, he was running, kicking a soccer ball, shooting a ball into a little basketball net and swinging a baseball bat. "By learning  to play all the sports he loves, she says, "he's becoming more coordinated."

Throughout 23 countries, Young Athletes helps more than 50,000 children, ages 2 1/2 to 8, with developmental disabilities improve motor skills, eye-hand coordination and social interactions - all while learning a sport.

Young Athletes was developed in 2004 by Ellen Anderson, an associate professor of physical therapy at Rutgers School of Health Related Professions (SHRP), and Special Olympics New Jersey president Marc Edenzon. Its aim is to teach parents how to play sports with their special needs youngsters, as they would with typically functioning children, and to educate them on how focusing on different aspects of play will help their children strengthen athletic skills. 

Motivational Play

Anderson had been working closely with the American Physical Therapy Association in screening athletes for strength, flexibility and balance at the Special Olympic Summer Games since 1998. "There are a lot of ways that physical therapists can improve children's gross motor skills. But there weren't any programs that took sports and broke them down into their components for these children," Anderson says.

Once Anderson and Edenzon presented the Young Athletes concept to the Special Olympics board of directors, chaired by Tim Shriver, the program was quickly approved. It debuted as a pilot in 11 countries and nine states in 2005, gaining prominence and expanding to more countries after its inclusion at the 2007 Special Olympics World Games in Shanghai.

Seeking ways to promote the Young Athletes program to parents, teachers and representatives in other states, Anderson and her husband, Scott, who works on Broadway productions, designed the Young Athletes Festival, which will debut during the Special Olympics 2014 USA Games, June 14-21, in Lawrenceville. "Delegates from all 50 states' Special Olympics will be there. The festival will show them what they can do in their own programs," Anderson says.

The festival -- structured as an amusement park - will feature six tents focusing on specific skills. Activities will be staffed by volunteers and faculty, alumni and students from SHRP's Doctor of Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy Assistant programs and are open to all young athletes who register for events.  These include a fun house with wavy mirrors, a "jungle" to encourage children to improve running and walking skills, a mountaintop adventure to practice balance and jumping, and games that focus on throwing, catching, kicking and striking.

The festival also will highlight Young Athletes' emphasis on traditional sports, including soccer and basketball drills and a motorcross event using no-pedal Strider bicycles. In addition, it will showcase the Young Athletes' developmental sports program, designed to allow children who age out of Young Athletes, and are not yet skilled enough for competition, to continue to develop skills in a traditional sport.

Hitting Milestones

There will be an opporunity for physical therapists to provide input as well. They'll watch the children play and assess their motor skills for their parents. "For example, there's a huge difference for these kids developmentally between kicking a stationary ball versus a moving ball," Anderson says. "Parents don't always realize this."

 For the Young Athletes Festival, Anderson created "Healthy Young Athletes - Ask the Doc," to engage a wide range of health care specialists who will circulate through the tents, observe children playing, answer parents questions and provide referral lists. "Most parents know a physical therapist or an occupational therapist because their child is engaged in therapy, but many don't know how to find a developmental optometrist or dentist who can handle a child with a disability," she says.

And Young Athletes Festival attendees will surely see Manny, most likely on his Strider bike. "I will be there, telling parents how great Young Athletes has been for Manny to learn social skills and to be introduced to these sports at such a young age," says Cajigas. "Since traditional recreational programs often don't start until the child is 5, Manny is getting exposed to so much more than my other children ever did."

Patti Verbanas is principal public relations specialist at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

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