Bringing the Joy of Hockey to the Developmentally Disabled

This piece is part of a series of perspectives from Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award Recipients on their experiences in philanthropic work.

As an avid ice hockey player, I believe in sports as a vehicle to help everyone gain confidence and learn about teamwork and commitment. As my Bar Mitzvah approached, I thought about what I could do to serve my community and share my passion for sports in a way that benefited others.

I became aware of the shortage of athletic opportunities for children with developmental disabilities and decided to create San Diego Chill. The program uses a one-on one mentoring model to teach seven to thirteen year-olds with developmental disabilities, including Autism and Down syndrome, how to play ice hockey and engage in positive social interactions. Teens volunteer as coaches and are assigned to specific players, allowing them to develop deep and meaningful bonds. Lessons are free for participants with all equipment donated. San Diego Chill is recognized as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and has grown into a welcoming community for more than 30 players and 25 coaches.

Since I was three years old, I’ve had a passion for ice hockey. My eight year-old brother was playing at our local rink, and as my parents tell me, I wouldn’t stop bothering them until they put me in skates and let me get on the ice. Without any guidance, I stepped on the ice with stick in hand and that was it, I was hooked!

During preparation for my Bar Mitzvah I was thinking about how to give back to my community. Although many of my friends created a one-time project, I wanted to do something that would have a deeper and continuing impact on my community, specifically involving the game I love and cherish. After some research, I soon discovered that there were special needs hockey teams across the United States, but none in San Diego. Immediately I knew that was what I wanted to do. After ongoing outreach to anyone who could help, I finally held our very first skate clinic. I had teammates come to the ice rink, and we waited for the crowds to come, yet only two kids showed up; Jason and Tammy, a brother and sister who are still in our program.

Since then, much has changed. For starters, I was able to convince the Paul Hastings law firm to help us get 501(c)3 status pro bono. We aggressively began to advertise our program to gain members. We grew exponentially, gaining 30 players, who are still active in the program. Every one of our players is paired with a coach. The result is nothing less than extraordinary. Players show unprecedented growth, and form inseparable bonds with coaches both on and off the ice. Seeing friendships flourish, parents bonding and teen coaches devote themselves so unselfishly is amazing. It makes my heart well up with pride just thinking about how one idea, one person’s effort, can make a difference.

Each and every player in San Diego Chill holds a special place in my heart. I love that they invite me to their birthday parties. I love that the players come to watch the coach teams play. I love that we all eat lunch together after the practices. I love that even when I’m tough, they know to trust me. The parents, many whom I’m sure had serious doubts about trusting their child to teenage coaches, now ask me for advice. I’m not the only one; the other coaches feel the same way as well.

I was so honored and thrilled to be selected as a recipient of the 2016 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award. The award means so much to me and even more in terms of the San Diego Chill. Ice time alone costs $200 a half hour. Equipment, uniforms and tournaments are also costly additions for the San Diego Chill. We have never, and will never, ask a player to pay any money; we are solely dependent on donations.
I will be putting a portion of the Award money towards the Chill. The money will allow us to continue to help change the world one child at a time. I plan to use the remaining money for my continuing education, so I can learn even more about how to repair the world.

For his accomplishments with San Diego Chill, Isaiah was honored with the CNN Heroes: Young Wonder Award, presented by Anderson Cooper in December 2016.

This story "Bringing the Joy of Hockey to the Developmentally Disabled" was written by Isaiah Granet.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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