By Anne Marie Amacher
DAVENPORT — Assumption High School basketball players are learning to be players in the community as well as on the basketball court. They are assisting as bowling buddies for people with special needs who participate in Hand-in-Hand activities.
Hand-in-Hand started in 2000 in Bettendorf so that children with special needs could participate in various activities that typical children could do. Mark and Vinnie Smith and Dave and Joanie Steil each had a child with special needs, which inspired them to open Hand-in-Hand.
The program began with a one-week camp and “took off,” said Mark Smith during a Jan. 18 bowling outing with Hand-in-Hand participants and Assumption basketball players.
Hand-in-Hand provides a variety of services and activities for people ages 6 weeks to 21 years and even some activities for older adults. Bowling is a popular activity that Hand-in-Hand offers for a 10-week period in the winter. Various groups have volunteered to assist children and adult bowlers with special needs over the years. Bowlers range in age from 5 to 40 years old. As many as 60 bowlers take part.
The current volunteers are primarily basketball players from Assumption in Davenport.
Joe Barrer, Assumption’s varsity basketball coach, said the Smiths approached him about having his players assist the bowlers. “I was looking for something for us to get involved in,” Barrer said, “And this was a good fit for our guys.”
During the first week of the bowling season, sophomore basketball players helped the bowlers. On Jan. 18 the varsity team took its turn. Other students from the high school can participate, too.
“We push community service in school and sports,” Barrer said. “This organization is a good fit for us.”
For many of the youth and adults with special needs, the bowling activity is a highlight of their year, Mark Smith said. “They always look forward to bowling.”
The youth helpers and the bowlers both benefit from the experience, he added.
For those with special needs, the experience builds on social skills and friendship-making opportunities. For the volunteers, it’s an opportunity to learn about special needs and abilities, what Hand-in-Hand has to offer, and what the volunteers can do in the future.
“This is a win-win situation for everyone,” said Vinnie Smith.
Mark Smith likes to watch the interaction of his clients with the volunteers, and the interaction and reaction of parents who come along. “It’s not just the kids who get excited,” he said.
He noted that parents of children with special needs often seek out their child’s bowling buddy to say thank you.
Through the buddy program, participants with special needs learn about being a part of the community. “They learn social skills. They practice taking turns, saying please and thank you.
“For most children you only need to teach them those simple skills once or twice. For our kids, it might take a hundred times, but it’s skill-building.”
Gary and Juanita Ghere were at the Jan. 18 bowling session with their daughter Caitlin, 14.
“Caitlin loves Hand-in-Hand bowling. Every participant gets a trophy that is personalized at the end and it means so much,” said Juanita. “The Assumption kids are good with it,” she added. She noted that a group from Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, to which the family belongs, has helped with bowling in the past. “It’s neat to see these kids helping our kids. They get excited for our kids, cheer with our kids and become friends.”
The Ghere family has been involved in Hand-in-Hand since it started. “Caitlin loves bowling and the dances offered,” her mother said. Hand-in-Hand offers “such a wonderful sense of community not just to kids with special needs, but to others,” Juanita said. She appreciates how a variety of churches, schools and other organizations get involved in the activities.
Assumption High School senior Blake Schneden assisted Caitlin with bowling at the Jan. 18 outing.
He asked what color ball she wanted and when she chose one, he let her pick up the ball and bring it to a stand that he had set up so that she could roll the ball down the lane. Once the ball hit the pins, he cheered for Caitlin and gave her a “high five.” “I really like doing this,” he said. “It is rewarding.”
Blake says he is blessed to have this opportunity through Assumption and has learned to be more thankful.
After the end of the bowling season, in mid-March, an awards banquet is held. Each special-needs client receives an award, Mark Smith said. The Assumption students will be invited to share that special event with their new friends.