The Freehold Challenger Sports Program is a three-season pro-gram that includes soccer in the fall, baseball in the spring and basketball in the winter. The programs function is to serve children with special needs in the Freehold area. Started in 1993, it was created for athletes classified as being eligible for Special Education and formulated so that the children could learn and enjoy the full benefits of participating in a sports program, not stuck on the sidelines watching someone else play.
The program is environmentally structured to the children’s abilities and is open to athletes of all ages who are enrolled in some form of special services in school. The action takes place on Sun-day mornings at the Little League complex in Freehold Township or in a public school. The children also get to travel to play other teams. The program helps the special needs population develop athletic skills and motor skills. It also helps promote social skills and teamwork while strengthening their self esteem and encouraging sportsmanship and fair play.
The Freehold Area Challenger Sports is run by Director, Alan Goldstein, a retired School Psychologist and former Special Education Teacher. Goldstein never liked how the children with special needs were bullied at school for being different and felt the need for a program for youth with special needs that mirrored a typical child’s activities. Together, with the help of other coaches Brooke Zolezi and Michael and volunteers in the area, they developed a program that would teach the children new skills in various different sports and a way for them to have fun while feeling that they are a part of a team. Each player is paired with a buddy who assists him or her throughout the year. The players range from three years old and up.
Goldstein created the all-volunteer division for Western Monmouth County, which is hosted by Freehold Township. (There is a waiting list to become a buddy.) Goldstein has stated that he gets great satisfaction watching the children learn the sport and grow in their skills from season to season. He loves seeing them moving around, but best of all, he loves the smiles on their faces. He was excited, when in 1989, Little League, Inc. launched the Challenger Division for those with Mental and Physical challenges. In 2017 his team was chosen to participate in the Little League Challenger Division Exhibition at the Little League Baseball World Series in Williamsport, PA.
Brooke Zolezi is one of the volunteers who works with her buddy Michael. She helps him participate in each sport ac-tivity by actually going out with him, whether in the field or on the basketball court. Volunteers help boost their buddy’s confidence, cheer them on and guide them. “It is such a rewarding experience and we have grown to love Michael like family,” Brooke stated. Brooke is a junior in high school. This is her second year in the program. She also volunteers for Centra State Medical Center. Helping others has always been her passion. She always had interest in the Challenger Sports Program but was a competitive dancer so her schedule would not permit. Once she gave up competitive dance to cheer for her high school, her Sundays were free to help out in the program as a buddy. She has always had an interest in working with children and adults with special needs; it is also something she will pursue in college, possibly teaching Special Ed or becoming an Occupational Therapist. The program has very young children and also adults. Her buddy Michael is twenty-eight. Brooke looks forward to spending every Sunday with him and his family, along with the other young adults on his team. She has formed special relationships with them all. “It is the most rewarding volunteering I have ever participated in,” Brooke stated.
To find out more about the Freehold Challenger Sports program, go to: freeholdareachallengersports.org or look them up on facebook.