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Safe Haven West Side Basketball League.

"Be patient with each child's development. Encourage them to do their best. Sit back, and be amazed."

It was almost a dozen years ago that the A speaker of those sage words, "Coach Ken" McGrory, approached Eileen Paley, a long-time educator based in the Upper West Side of New York City, about starting a basketball program for children with special needs. A good friend of his at Church, who had a son with autism, was well aware that he had been a volunteer coach for various youth leagues in the area. She encouraged him towards founding the Safe Haven West Side Basketball League, a program that started out with less than 20 children. Today, it involves 90 families with girls and boys whose ages range from five through 10 (the "Rising Star" Division); 10 through 14 (the "Junior Division"); and 15 through 22 (the "Senior Division"). Week after week, the young athletes there conquer the game despite having special needs such as ADHD, autism, learning disabilities, or emotional issues.

For the very first time this year, Coach Ken chose the League's Most Valuable Player in young Marcos Acevedos. "I am not the kind of coach who likes to single out anyone for his or her contributions," said Coach Ken, a successful Manhattan executive by day. "But I made a rare exception with Marcos, because he was not so much interested in points scored, or games won. He exhibited true leadership, sportsmanship, sensitivity and caring. All the other kids very much look up to him and hopefully can learn from him." Marcos received a new basketball from his Coach and, more important, got to serve as Assistant Coach for several recent games.

Coach Ken knows of all the things that truly matter in conducting a sports program for children with disabilities and special healthcare needs. At age 17, already possessing a great passion for basketball, he suffered from a medical accident which cost him the use of his right arm. Fortunately, he found an advocate and mentor in his own hero, Coach John Mathis. The first thing Coach John uttered when he visited young Ken at the hospital was, "I need you back in the team." He urged Ken to play again, but training himself to do so with the use of his left arm. These days, he believes that many of the kids at Safe Haven are able to connect with him in the sense of: "Coach Ken has an issue with his arm but, hey, he's doing what we're doing." He enjoys his coaching stint so much that he has turned the weekend events into family affairs, with the volunteer work through the years of his college-aged son and daughter (a survivor of Hodgkin's Lymphoma), as well as his wife. He points out that, from the start, son Nate was not allowed to shoot; just dribble and pass the ball to others in the team to give them the chance to shoot.


Some of the other valuable lessons Coach Ken has learned includes, "One should never make an assumption of what an individual can, or cannot do." He highlights that each child ought to be dealt with individually "Because of this, I've seen so many kids' amazing transformation, such as that of our 14-year-old boy with autism, whose parents communicated with him through the use of a keyboard."

He credits a child's progress, in great measure, to true parental support. In fact, he looks forward to a parent returning to the gym for yet another weekend and another game for his child to enjoy: "As the parents have a long history with their child, I encourage them to allow their son or daughter to develop naturally." He suggests that they try and not expect too much at the start, but allow the child to have a wonderful time.

Coach Ken has also observed that fathers tend to have a more difficult time than mothers in dealing with a child who cannot do "what regular kids can do." He suggests that if a father sticks around long enough and even involves himself with the program, he could reap the greatest rewards from seeing the child's development.

The Safe Haven West Side Basketball League will continue to operate at a manageable level so that coaches there can continue to provide personal attention to every child that walks in the gym, hoping to conquer the fun and fast-paced sport of basketball. The League is able to accomplish this with strong support of Coach Ken's co-volunteers Rhonda Havre, whose 19-year-old son plays; as well as Stan Anderson, with whom Coach Ken has played basketball with for nearly two decades. The Safe Haven West Side Basketball League will also continue to be a corner in the City where players and their mentors care less about keeping score and care more about one another.
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Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2011
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