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Yankees HOPE Week Honoree: Rockaway Special Athletes

by Greg Tucker

Hurricane Sandy not only caused physical damage but wreaked havoc on many long-established community connections. In Rockaway Park, water damage to the St. Camillus-St. Virgilius Parish (SCSVP) gym scuttled a weekly gathering for children and adults with disabilities. But the community behind Rockaway Special Athletes worked to keep the Monday night tradition alive.

“Parents kept telling me, ‘The kids need their Mondays back,'” said Joe Featherston, the group's founder. “For some, it had been part of their routine for 16 years. We had to figure out a way to keep it going.”

The will of supporters and a generous gesture helped the Rockaway Special Athletes reunite earlier this year at a new location – St. Rose of Lima School – proving the group's bond was stronger than the storm.

Creating a Tradition

Featherston began working with Special Olympians in 1996 when he was teaching physical education, and he involved students from his high school to assist with the weekly coaching sessions. Soon after, he began to realize the benefits children with disabilities and their families could gain from a regular physical and social outlet.

This led to the first meeting of the Rockaway Special Athletes in the fall of 1996 with eight athletes and six volunteers at St. Camillus-St. Virgilius Parish. Soon word of the gathering spread, and the church was welcoming families of all faiths from surrounding neighborhoods. Mondays became the most anticipated night of the week for more than 50 families in Brooklyn and Queens, giving them a chance to step out, work out, and spend time with friends.

“The group became a focal point for the kids and their parents, allowing them a chance to exercise and interact in an atmosphere of total acceptance,” said Father Richard Ahlemeyer of SCSVP. “For some, it's their most important source of support.”

Shelter from the Storm

When Hurricane Sandy struck last year on Oct. 29, the Rockaways were devastated as thousands of people in the area lost their homes and everything in them. Springman Hall — the church's gym where the athletes regularly met — was rendered unfit for use and left the group without a home.

In April, Featherston connected with nearby St. Rose of Lima School, which had largely been spared by the storm, and found a location to resume the weekly gathering.

“We were happy to open our doors to the group,” said St. Rose of Lima School principal Theresa Andersen. “Helping individuals in their hour of need is what we try to do every day. I only wish they had come to us sooner.”

The athletes and their families are thankful for the generosity of St. Rose of Lima and look forward to returning home in September, when reconstruction is completed at SCSVP.

“Rockaway Special Athletes has been together for a long time, and it will take a lot more than a hurricane to tear us apart.” said Featherston.

VIDEO: New York Yankees players Preston Claiborne and Ivan Nova discuss their respective visits with Rockaway Athletes to kick off HOPE Week.

VIDEO: A member of Rockaway Special Athletes throws out the first pitch during the July 8, 2013, Yankees game to kick off this year's HOPE Week.

VIDEO: Broadcasters discuss the Yankees visit to Rockaway Special Athletes during the broadcast of the July 8 game.

About HOPE Week

Now in its fifth year, the New York Yankees HOPE Week recognizes individuals and organizations whose acts of goodwill provide hope and encouragement to the community. Honorees are visited in their communities by Yankee players and staff, and attend the night's game as guests of the team.

The Corporation for National and Community Service partners with the New York Yankees to present each HOPE Week honoree with the President's Volunteer Service Award. The Yankees and CNCS hope the honorees' stories send the message that everyone can serve to make their community a better place.

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