By Dan Brightcliffe
For the Wire
Jake Klouser walked onto the Council Rock North High School basketball court surrounded by a sea of cheers. This was the moment he had been waiting for.
A Hatboro resident, Klouser led the Indians basketball team onto the hardwood on Dec. 28 for its annual Athletes Helping Athletes Holiday Tournament game against St. Anthony’s of Melville, N.Y.
Klouser, 15, is not an official member of the team, but an honorary captain from the Athletes Helping Athletes program for special needs children.
“Jake has been involved with Athletes Helping Athletes for about three years,” explained his mother, Mindy Klouser. “He loves sports and the fact that he can be on the court with a real team is better than the (Philadelphia) Sixers for him.”
The program was created in 2001 by founder and president Rick Leonetti Sr. after he and his wife noticed that their sons were receiving extra athletic gear from Council Rock High School sports programs.
“When I was president of the boosters for (Council Rock) North’s football team, I suggested that instead of giving our kids gifts how about we raise money and give it to a charity. …We chose Special Olympics of Bucks County,” Leonetti recalled.
After teaming up with that group, Leonetti, a Richboro resident, began asking the special needs kids to come to Council Rock North’s football games to be honorary captains and receive T-shirts and medals. The success of the football event allowed Athletes Helping Athletes to expand, involving other sports and more events for special needs kids, such as sports fun nights. The program was incorporated in 2008, which paved the way for more expansion.
“Eventually, (Council Rock) North’s boys basketball coach, Derek Wright, asked to bring the program over to basketball as well and it just continued to grow from there,” said Leonetti during a phone interview while traveling to State College High School in order to work on plans for expanding the program even further.
This season marked Council Rock North boys basketball’s sixth year of hosting the AHA Holiday tournament, although they have been involved with the program since 2003.
“It’s important for our players to understand the positive influence they can have on their community through being involved in high school sports,” said Wright. “The Special Olympic athletes have such a great attitude as well. Many of those athletes model what we’d all like to aspire to be in terms of having fun and enjoying ourselves despite any adversity we may face.”
Athletes Helping Athletes has affected more than just the special needs children involved in the program. After being inspired by his experiences with the program, Council Rock North senior and basketball captain, Ryan Baker, formed an AHA club at school for varsity athletes to act as hosts to special needs children at varsity games during their off-seasons.
“It is good for the special needs kids because they get to be involved with sports and it shows me and my teammates that more than just our families are out there watching the games,” said Baker. “It is fun to have the AHA kids here cheering us on.”
AHA participant and Council Rock South freshman, T.J. Fox, 15, of Holland, was in attendance at the Holiday Tournament to enjoy the basketball games with his family.
“It is a great way to have the special needs kids socialize with typical kids,” said Fox’s father, Jim. “Athletes Helping Athletes helps to bridge two components of the community through sports, which really makes the kids feel involved.”
Athletes Helping Athletes is now involved with 20 schools in Bucks County, Philadelphia and Montgomery County in various sports such as football, soccer, basketball, volleyball, baseball and softball, tennis and cheerleading.
“It’s grown so much. When we first started this, I thought it would be more for the special needs kids, and yeah they do get a lot out of it… They like to show off their skills and be included,” said Leonetti.
“But, we didn’t realize what was happening was it had more of a positive effect on the student athlete from the different high schools,” he continued. “For some kids, it has actually changed their lives and put their lives in perspective at such a young age.”
For more information on Athletes Helping Athletes visit http://www.athleteshelpingathletesinc.com.