GLENS FALLS -- On Super Bowl Sunday, members of the Glens Falls High School varsity boy's basketball team suited up in their uniforms and laced up their shoes. But there was no opponent waiting for them at the Glens Falls YMCA court, only a group of special fans.
The team put on a skills demonstration for a group of 25 special needs kids, many with autism and some with other developmental challenges. It was the culmination of the players' months of volunteering with the Upstate New York Autism Awareness' Adaptive Sports League, for which the YMCA has been donating its courts to each Sunday morning and afternoon since Jan. 12.
Kristin Howarth, who along with Heather Walters founded of the nonprofit Upstate New York Autism Awareness in 2007, organizes the Adaptive Sports League, which includes the basketball program, as well as a soccer league in the fall and tee-ball in the spring.
She said the leagues provide the children a safe, non-competitive environment where they can bond, which, she said, is the most difficult thing for autistic children.
"Bonding with somebody, that's a huge deficit these kids have. So it's really neat to see how they're looking up to these high schoolers and the high schoolers have been phenomenal with these kids," Howarth said. She has two autistic children of her own, twin boys age 6, who participate in the programs.
For parents, the sports leagues are respite. Howarth said that if the volunteers see a parent trying to help out, they will intervene and tell the parent to return to the sidelines.
"It's hands-off for the parents," Howarth said, noting that parents on the sidelines talk about different treatment and share resources.
Howarth approached GFHS basketball coach Tony Hammel with the idea of doing a demonstration, and he jumped right on board.
"I was talking with my husband and I said, ‘You know, it would be great for them to come in their uniform and do a little demonstration so the kids could see, Wow, so that's what basketball is.' To see these cool high schoolers that have been helping us - I thought it would bring it full circle for the kids."
She said Sunday wasn't the first time area student athletes have volunteered. Each week members of the Glens Falls varsity basketball team, soccer team, swim team, and Hudson Falls National Honor Society, as well as the YMCA's own Leaders Club, volunteer their time.
"We give them a certificate at the end so they can use it for their college resumes, but some of them have already fulfilled their requirements and still volunteer. They tell me they get as much out of it as the kids," Howarth said.
Glens Falls High School senior, basketball and soccer player Ben Spilman said he met his community service requirement last year, but he still volunteers in the Adaptive Sports League on Sundays at YMCA.
"We met a lot of the kids that played soccer in the fall and we wanted to keep up the relationships with them," Spilman said.
Junior forward Ray Eaglin said volunteering with the kids provides a much-needed positive for the basketball team.
"The season hasn't been going too well so it's good to get out in the community and help out and get a positive out of the season," Eaglin said.
The oldest player in the Adaptive Sports League, 11-year-old Matthew Wilkinson, was getting high-fives from the Glens Falls basketball players that have come to know him during their time volunteering.
"I really like that people understand me and are not judging me for who I am. It's great for people to help me," Wilkinson said.