It's the beginning of the month and that means it's time to honor teens who Help And Lead Others in a big way. Join us in congratulating our HALO Effect honoree for July, Zachary Certner!
Zach is a eighteen year-old New Jersey student who co-founded SNAP, Inc. (Special Needs Athletic and Awareness Programs), a non-profit organization that aims to help autistic children across the globe improve their social and athletic skills through sports programs. Check our our exclusive Q&A to learn more about Zachary's incredible dedication to this cause!
What inspired you to co-found SNAP, Inc.? What were the beginning stages of the organization like?
I was inspired to get involved with special needs children because a close family friend was diagnosed with severe autism. In my community there are limited programs for special needs children, since sports have always been a passion of mine, I felt strongly about giving every child the opportunity to be part of a team. I was disturbed seeing kids excluded from sports, lunch tables, and even friendships just because they were different. This action led to the creation of my 501c(3) non-profit organization SNAP: Special Needs Athletic and Awareness Programs.
To translate this idea into a reality, I needed financing and community involvement. To accomplish this massive undertaking I contacted the Board of Education, local recreational departments, mayors, and other community leaders; fundraising became a necessity and I worked endlessly to locate and contact potential donors.
What do you think is uniquely important about pairing athletic programs with Special Needs advocacy?
SNAP was formed to help improve the lives of children who suffer from autism and other disabilities. Currently, it is estimated that one in every 84 children is diagnosed with autism. Autism can prevent children from learning, behaving, and communicating effectively. This often leads to bullying and discrimination in the classroom. My hope was that by providing autistic and special needs children with athletic and social programming, I could improve their physical abilities, communication skills, and self-esteem. I created a regular schedule of free sports clinics to give special needs children an opportunity to learn and to play all with peer mentors. My philosophy is Kids Helping Kids; a direct contrast from special needs children's usual interaction with adult doctors, therapists, and teachers.
How did you work to expand SNAP's influence abroad to countries like Guatemala, Tanzania and China?
After running our sports clinics for five years in New Jersey, we understand that sports is the way to make everyone feel equal and give them the confidence they need everyday. I felt that the special needs children should learn to give back as well, so we conducted sports drive to collect equipment for children in Tanzania.In 2010, I traveled to Tanzania on the first ever mission trip, providing the children of Sibusisio with donations and sports equipment. The children were especially enthusiastic about soccer, immediately breaking off in game after blowing up the newly donated soccer balls. Everyone was equal on the field, disregarding gender, race, and any disability.
In 2011, SNAP expanded on a global level and partnered with the first ever special needs school in Nebaj, Guatemala. Thanks to an incredible organization Mayan Hope (link), SNAP hopes to continue helping special needs children around the world. We purchased all necessary materials from schoolbooks and supplies, to desks, chairs, and water purifiers. With the help of Mayan Hope, we hope to raise the necessary funds to secure a permanent and safe learning atmosphere for children with special needs. In a country with no education and awareness on autism, a supportive environment is crucial and necessary.
Can you tell us a little bit about the sensitivity training SNAP offers to student volunteers?
Through a series of presentations and hands on modules, I show children the challenges and frustrations faced by their disabled classmates. Using blind folds, mirrors, and balance balls, my training allows students to experience the difficulties and frustrations of various disabilities. It is through the training that the mainstream students walk in the shoes of various disabilities. It is the moment that they feel how frustrated they become doing simple activities that we take for granted everyday, that I know I have reached them.
What is one of the biggest misconceptions about Special Needs children?
I think the biggest misconception is that they are just like you and I, they just might not be able to express what they are feeling. They want to be accepted and included even if they are different. People assume that because these children have difficulty interacting with their peers, they are unfriendly or shy. But it is that they cannot communicate their desire for a friendship like we can. They also do not show emotion so that is often difficult interpret what they are feeling.
Can you recall one memorable moment, big or small, when you realized you were truly making a difference?
I never imagined that someone who couldn't speak could say so much. Growing up with our family friend was the foundation for my organization. I always wondered if I truly was making a difference in these children's lives. Those thoughts changed, however, when I met Charlie, also afflicted with autism.
Charlie had been part of SNAP for many years, but struggled each session. When he walked into my clinic's gymnasium the each session, I saw how apprehensive his parents were and wondered each week if he would come back. Charlie remained expressionless as I handed him off to his volunteer to begin practicing basketball. Months past and we barely made improvements. At the clinic, I found Charlie sitting on the floor biting his fingers ferociously. I sat beside him and held his hands away from his mouth. His eyes focused on me, but his face remained expressionless. Charlie then grabbed his electronic interpreter and slowly typed on the keyboard. As soon as he finished, he dropped the computer and ran to other side of the gym. As I picked it up to return it to his parents, I could see what Charlie had written - "C-l-i-n-i-c_y-e-a-h". That was the moment that I knew I had to continue. The magic that is created is unimaginable in the clinics.
To learn more about Zachary and his organization, check out the clip below!