VOORHEES — Ronnie Coll stood with her back against the wall alongside a full-sized hardwood basketball court. She could not contain her excitement as her ear-to-ear smile suggested. Coll watched her daughter bounce a basketball practically with ease, something she never really saw before.
As she explained, her daughter is a bit clumsy, so seeing that ball bounce up-and-down in rhythm definitely sent goosebumps up her arms.
“She couldn’t bounce a ball when she walked in and now she’s bouncing,” said Coll. “What they’re doing for them is terrific.”
Coll was among dozens of parents who watched their children participate in the Special Olympics training at Nexxt Level Sports in Voorhees. In total, there were 45 athletes and more than 70 volunteers.
“It's an extremely good feeling and I think everyone leaves with a new perspective,” said Erin McAdams, a volunteer. “Everyone leaves here with a calm demeanor and very appreciative of life in general after the ability to touch these peoples lives.”
The training, which runs on Tuesday nights, provides and encourages fitness interaction for Special Olympics athletes all while top-notch Nexxt Level Sports trainers help them develop their skills in sports such as basketball, baseball and soccer.
The volunteers are anywhere from seven to 60 years old. With such a diverse range, the athletes receive training and experiences that they could not get anywhere else. Throughout the evening, it’s impossible not to appreciate the amount of smiles and laughs that can be found throughout the 22,000-sq. ft. complex.
“Once we start the activities, whether it’s soccer, baseball or basketball, it’s just the commonality,” said Jerome Heath, a United States Army colonel who recently just arrived from a tour overseas. “Everyone is having a good time, there’s no disabilities when you’re out there sharing a laugh, shaking hands, high fiving each other. It’s a great time.”
Jory Kratz, a special olympics athlete, really started to enjoy soccer as he continually found the back of the net whenever his turn in line came up. He, like every other participant, appreciated everything that was being offered.
“It feels great, it really does feel great,” explained Kratz. “I’m learning how to do soccer very well and basketball.”
The facility prides itself on three things: improve yourself, celebrate life and pay it forward. One volunteer, in particular, really epitomized everything that Nexxt Level Sports is all about.
Matt Klinewski is a name familiar to many high school basketball fans in the area. The recent Eastern High School graduate was named by The Philadelphia Inquirer as its boys’ basketball player of the year after this past season. Now he's set to attend Lafayette College on a scholarship.
The 6-foot-8 big man is leaving for Easton, Pa., in a few weeks for college, but rather than spend all of his time during his final days at home with his friends or even family, Klinewski took a few hours of his evening to come out and help train the athletes in attendance.
“When you see a high school athlete that has 23 days left before he goes off to play major college basketball and he chooses to spend his evening here, that tells you we’re doing something right,” explained Mike Lynch, who runs the Nexxt Level Foundation in addition to serving as the chief operating officer for Nexxt Level Sports.
Klinewski, like every other volunteer on hand, enjoyed communicating with the athletes, sharing an experience with them and as he explained, trying his best to teach them some basketball skills.
“It feels good to give back to people,” said Klinewski. “It’s the best thing. It gives you a nice feeling inside knowing that you’re helping someone out.”
With an overwhelming positive reception, it’s hard not to foresee this program becoming a staple for years to come for Nexxt Level Sports. As multiple volunteers and staff members noted, there isn’t anything like this in the South Jersey area for Special Olympics athletes. That problem, however, seems like it’s come to an end.
“This is something I have been wanting to do for the past three to four years,” said Marianne Aponte, the Area Director for the Speical Olympics of New Jersey in Area 7 (Camden, Gloucester and Salem counties). “We’re hoping we can get a team started and continue the relationship to get the athletes coming here.”
Rose Lynch, a volunteer who played an important role alongside Aponte in getting the weekly training opporotunities set up, explained how “there aren’t any programs like this that last that long and offer these skills.” She believes this is something that will be here to stay after seeing how well the athletes and trainers interacted.
For many of the parents, including Coll, this has been something they’ve been waiting for for a long time. Seeing their children out there learning new skills and making friends is a feeling that can never be duplicated.
“I absolutely love it and I wish they’d have done it years ago,” said Coll. “[The volunteers] must have a heart of gold to do this for them. I have not met anybody who would not bend over backwards for these kids. It’s a great program they’re doing. It’s so wonderful.”
* Editor's note: To find out more about The Nexxt Level Foundation and how you can get involved in this program, please click to visit www.nexxtlevelfoundation.org