United in their eagerness to give back to a deserving community, St. John’s University student-athletes welcomed more than 250 special-needs children from New York City schools to the Queens, NY, campus on April 26 for a morning of soccer, basketball, and old-fashioned fun.
More than 60 athletes from the women’s basketball and men’s and women’s soccer teams volunteered to be part of the Community Mayors for Children with Special Needs’ event held at Belson Stadium and Taffner Field House. They were joined by University coaches, New York City Department of Education staff, volunteers from the Hospital for Special Surgery, and more.
Of course, the stars of the show were the 25 busloads of students who embraced an opportunity to experience a day working with Division I college athletes.
“Our students lack experiences like these,” said Megan Krebs, a special-education teacher at P177Q in Fresh Meadows, NY, and coach of a regional Special Olympics team. “They don’t get community outings in general. Here, they get the structure they need and see athletes they can look up to.”
Coached by St. John’s players, the visiting students took turns kicking soccer balls and dribbling basketballs, moving seamlessly from one practice station to the next. At one outdoor station, men’s soccer forward Nicolas Fleuriau Chateau played goal while a team of visiting students fired shot after shot in quick succession.
Not that Nicolas minded. The event only reinforced his appreciation for the opportunity he has to play at St. John’s.
“I’ve seen in my life what sports can do for people,” Nicolas, from Ottawa, Ontario, said. “I’ve literally seen how it can save lives. I know that not everyone is as lucky as I am. It’s a gift to be able to play at a great school like St. John’s.”
While Nicolas played goal, women’s players Jordyn Levy and Madeline Moore shared the soccer ball with the visiting students, who delighted in each completed pass. Maddy, from Vancouver, British Columbia, has several relatives with special needs and recognized the joy the students felt in participating in an activity so easily taken for granted.
“There is no better use of my time,” Maddy said. “One of the greatest gifts I can give is to share my love of soccer with others. I am so grateful to be able to wake up every day and play a sport.”
Indoors at Taffner, members of the women’s basketball team helped students with free-throw shooting, passing, and even the occasional layup. It was difficult to tell who got more out of the session—the visiting students or St. John’s players-turned-mentors for a day.
“It’s important to know there is something bigger than just us,” said Jillian Archer, a forward on the Red Storm women’s team that advanced to the National Collegiate Athletic Association women’s Division I basketball tournament this past season. “A lot of what we accomplished could not have been done without the support of the St. John’s community. This is a way of giving back, and it’s going to last a lifetime for these kids.”
Added guard Mimi Reid: “We spend so much time around each other as players and coaches. Doing something like this, we get to broaden ourselves a little bit and recognize how fortunate we are to play college basketball.”
The University has partnered with Community Mayors for Children with Special Needs, a Brooklyn, NY-based nonprofit, on events such as this for more than a decade. However, the April 26 event was the first on St. John’s Queens campus since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Community Mayors seeks to provide emotionally, mentally, and physically challenged children with experiences that stimulate their interests and lift their spirits. “In that regard, its mission perfectly blends with St. John’s Vincentian values,” said John A. Diffley ’01MBA, ’21Ed.D., Deputy Athletics Director and Chief Operating Officer, Athletics. “Giving back to students with challenges is 100 percent in alignment with the University’s mission. It’s great to see how much it means to our athletes.”