Bouncing balls, stomping feet, create ‘magic’ at JCC
Special Olympics training offers window into athletic life, community involvement
On Sundays, Jack Flaherty practices shot put by throwing a tennis ball inside the gym at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill. Steps away, Dariush Valizebeth and Scott Federbusch prepare for competition by passing a basketball while teammates complete 100-meter repeats one floor above.
The pounding sound of balls bouncing on a hardwood floor as feet slam against a suspended track is “magic,” JCC Chief Program Officer Jason Kunzman said.
Every Sunday it’s the same, as it has been for almost three decades. Afternoons end with some athletes hitting the pool. Others board buses and return home. The group will congregate again the next week, even though most of the athletes, coaches and parents aren’t members of the JCC.
But membership isn’t the point, JCC leaders explained.
Providing a space for Special Olympics “speaks to everything we do here,” said Sherree Hall, the JCC’s senior director of facilities and wellness. “We are open to this community, and we want to be able to serve every part of this community.”
For more than 30 years, Hall has seen children grow up inside the building, use the organization’s resources, begin families of their own and start the pattern again.
The JCC deserves credit for many different programs but not Special Olympics, Hall explained. “The takeaway is not about us,” she said. “The takeaway is that these participants have a place to come and that our community serves them.”
Kunzman couldn’t agree more.
“This is an explicit demonstration of our approach and our desire to be as inclusive as possible,” he said.
Neither the athletes nor their coaches are asked to pay a cent toward the facilities in Squirrel Hill or the South Hills.
Mercer County resident Connie Federbusch said the arrangement is “wonderful.” Whether the athletes live in group homes, independently or with their parents, “money is always an issue.”
Federbusch, 75, belonged to the JCC decades ago when she lived in Churchill. At the time, her children were involved in a host of JCC activities, including Emma Kaufmann Camp, and spent summer days at the JCC’s Family Park pool in Monroeville.
Her son Scott “always wanted to be like his brother or sister,” Federbusch said. Special Olympics Pennsylvania — an organization that offers “year-round sports training and competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities” — helped make that possible.
Scott Federbusch, 42, is a person with Down syndrome. For the past 34 years, he has competed in basketball, bowling and various track and field events.
“If it’s out there, he’ll do it,” his mother said. “Except he doesn’t do swimming.”
Like Scott Federbusch, Jack Flaherty, 37, began competing at age 8. At the time, Flaherty’s family lived in Texas. About five years ago, they moved to O’Hara Township.
“We found out about the JCC here, and I’m the kind of person who can’t sit in the stands. I have to get involved,” Jack’s mother, Jane Flaherty, 72, said.
Jane Flaherty used to coach basketball and track and field. Now she coaches bowling and bocce.
“I get much more out of it than I put in,” she said. “It’s like having a huge family. We are all connected.”
But the kinship isn’t just between teammates — it's with the larger community, Flaherty said.
On Sundays, JCC members use the same space as the athletes.
“We practice shot put using tennis balls so we don’t hurt anyone,” she said with a laugh.
Ellen McBride-Valizadeh, 66, has been with the group since the mid-1990s. Her son, Dariush Valizebeth, 35, used to compete in numerous events, now “due to his work schedule, he does bowling and basketball,” the mother said.
Competing affords her son, and the other athletes, an opportunity to “gain confidence and build a positive self-image,” McBride-Valizadeh said.
There’s also the social component.
“Some athletes may be in school or work, but their social network can be smaller,” she said. “So to have friends to share with, and laugh with and share in those accomplishments is just thrilling.”
McBride-Valizadeh said the JCC group consists of about 55 athletes ranging from 10 years old to their mid-50s. Several athletes compete in multiple sports. Others specialize in just one.
McBride-Valizadeh urged the wider community to get to know some of the athletes.
“There are many, many different kinds of people in the world, and if you live in your shell and don’t see a person with a disability perform a shot put, or a race, you don’t understand what they’re capable of,” she said. “Anything they want to do, if they put their mind to it, they can do it. They just need the opportunity.”
Scott Federbusch agreed.
He said he hopes readers will be encouraged to get involved in Special Olympics, and maybe even join him for training.
“We do skills,” he said. “We run around the gym three times. We do a couple of layups, a couple of drills. I love it.”
Federbusch enjoys basketball but said he looks forward to warmer days when the track and field team meets outdoors at Schenley Park.
“We do laps then we do long jump, shot put and the 100-meter dash,” he said. “I love to run a lot and get more fit.” Because of the exercise, “I fit into my clothes, and I can be more healthy.”
Federbusch knows everyone doesn’t share his enthusiasm for sprinting along a synthetic surface or practicing foul shots in a crowded gym, but he said there are plenty of opportunities, and reasons, to get involved in Special Olympics.
Ultimately, he said, it’s a great way to make friends.
“I tell people, if they need anything from me they should give me a call, or text me, and I will talk to them.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at [email protected].