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He was only 8 years old, but Zachary Certner knew poor sportsmanship when he saw it. While playing recreational-league baseball in Morristown, New Jersey, he was shocked to hear some of his teammates' parents call for a special-needs kid to skip his turn at bat, fearing he could cost them the game. "Many people don't view children with disabilities as equals—and I knew that was wrong," he says. "They should be involved in the community, and sports are a good way to do that because they teach collaboration, communication and patience. They're also a lot of fun."
Zach felt so strongly about what happened on the field that he and his older brother Matthew decided to take action. They started pooling their cash from birthday gifts and babysitting. Over the next few years, they bought balls and other basic equipment, convinced their elementary school to let them use the gym, and started offering weeknight soccer, basketball and baseball clinics for special-needs children. The brothers, along with a few friends they enlisted to help, ran the workshops, teaching hands-on athletic skills in a friendly, noncompetitive environment.
As more and more kids signed up—both as participants and as mentors—it was clear that the program was filling a real need. Established as a nonprofit in 2009, SNAP, Inc. (Special Needs Athletic Programs) has since held sports clinics throughout New Jersey, with hundreds of mentors who have helped more than 150 disabled children ages 5 to 17. "We want to remove the stigma of special needs and create a culture of acceptance and compassion," says Zach, now 17. "Everyone deserves that."
The ultimate aim of the sports clinics is to give these children, typically ostracized from recreational leagues, a chance to be part of a regular team. But Zach wanted to expand the group's mission. After SNAP received a $13,000 grant from Autism Speaks, an advocacy and research organization, he started offering 40-minute sensitivity training workshops for third- to fifth-graders at local schools. Students learn about autism (more than 90 percent of families involved in SNAP have a child on the autism spectrum) and dyslexia. They're also given tasks, like copying words reflected in a mirror or dressing themselves with socks on their hands, so they can better understand the challenges special-needs children face every day.
SNAP relies on awards, grants and scholarships but even more so on a full roster of volunteers, including clinic mentors, coaches, teachers and an advisory board made up of education and medical experts. Zach's family also plays a significant role: Matthew, 22, a recent Duke University business graduate, is CEO; oldest brother Daniel, 25, serves as financial advisor; and mom Alexandra, a former dentist, now volunteers full-time. Dad Bruce maintains his dental practice, is a SNAP board member and also helps with the organization's finances. "We all feel that no kid should be excluded from sports, lunch tables or friendships just because they have a disability," says Zach. "In the end, we're all the same."