Contributed photo                                 Jacob Brauckmann referees a basketball game during a recent Sport Start night at Jessie Lee Elementary. Brauckmann started with the program in 2013.

Contributed photo Jacob Brauckmann referees a basketball game during a recent Sport Start night at Jessie Lee Elementary. Brauckmann started with the program in 2013.

‘Half friendship, half sport’ program scoring among aspiring athletes

South Surrey Sport Start crosses five-year start line

A volunteer-run program that opens fun, active doors to youth with special needs is marking its fifth year in South Surrey, and organizers say space has opened up for even more athletes to give basketball, soccer and floor hockey a try.

The Special Olympics Sport Start program is a combination of “entry level and skill development – half friendship, half sport,” said Susan de Wit, a South Surrey resident who launched the program with her husband, Bob, in the fall of 2013.

“We’re kind of the entry point (for Special Olympics), for a lot of kids.”

Sport Start runs every Thursday night from October to May – with social events held a few times per season – in the gymnasium of Jessie Lee Elementary. It’s for athletes aged 12 to 18 years old to participate in an environment that is designed to be fun, safe and inclusive.

It’s for “kids with special needs who are looking to add some great friends into their life while being a bit more active,” de Wit said.

“It really is a healing place where kids can really just let their hair down and have a good time.”

De Wit said many participants – there are currently around 12 regulars – have been with the program since it started, some have aged out and others have gone on to pursue other sports.

One athlete who started in 2013, Jacob Brauckmann – drawn by the opportunity it offered him to pursue his passion for basketball – is now a volunteer referee and plays on a more competitive Special Olympics basketball team.

“We are really proud of him,” de Wit said.

Another success has come through involving student coaches from Southridge School. The coaches are on the floor with the athletes every week, both mentoring and playing as peers, de Wit said.

“It’s become kind of a young leaders program as well,” she said.

Claire Friesen, in Grade 12 at Southridge, said she started as a peer coach a year ago. She described it as “so fulfilling.”

“I love getting to see each athlete improve throughout the year, and become a more confident person on and off the court,” Friesen, 18, told Peace Arch News by email Friday.

“I have become a better person since I started volunteering. I am so happy I joined and it is always such a highlight of my week!”

De Wit said she often fields calls from parents who are interested in getting their kids involved in Sport Start, but who at the same time stress that their child doesn’t really play sports, or that it’s hard to get them active.

She said her emphasis is always on simply giving it a shot.

“I encourage them to just lace up their sneakers and just come on out and try it,” she said.

“It’s not uncommon for kids to come into our program and sit on the bench (at first), or circle around the outside.

“Pretty soon, they’re in there high-fiving. It doesn’t take them long.”

For more information, contact de Wit at susan.richardsdewit@gmail.com