PHOTO:  RBR Freshmen Michael Wood, Ryan Karr, and John Venino of Little Silver who spend their Saturday mornings assisting children with special needs play basketball in the Rally Cap Sports program in Middletown, NJ.

LITTLE SILVER, NJ - Three Little Silver friends John Venino, Ryan Karr and Michael Wood entered Red Bank Regional (RBR) High School together with the passion to play basketball.

They play together on the freshman basketball team during the winter months and practice mostly every Sunday. But on Saturday, in the Thompson Middle School gym in Middletown, they share their love for the sport with other kids who love it too, but need a buddy to help them play. Through RBR, the three young men found Rally Cap Sports, a program serving the special needs population for over 28 years, as a volunteering opportunity in the community.

The RBR boys are not novices to volunteering. Ryan has volunteered to serve at Lunch Break in Red Bank, Michael performs volunteer services for his church and John is active in the Little Silver Shovels Program assigned to shovel out the homes of senior citizens living in the borough when a heavy snow falls.

But they particularly like this program as John states, “It is a really fun way to help out these kids in doing something we like to do-- playing basketball.”

Michael adds, “It is so much fun to see their smiles when they make a shot. They get so happy. It makes your day.”

Case in point was one young man who Ryan and Michael buddied with one morning. With a giant smile of joy on his face, twelve-year old Ryan Calabrese bent his knees deep and wide as he put all his strength into propelling the basketball toward its target.

His mom Jackie comments, “I think this is just a great program. He loves it. In my town we do have programs he can participate in, but not basketball. And he loves basketball.”

PHOTO: (left to right) are: RBR freshman Ryan Karr, Little Silver; Reilly Venino, seventh grade, Little Silver, Ryan Calabrese, Oakhurst, RBR freshman Michael Wood, Little Silver. Ryan as a player in the Rally Caps Sports program is coached by his buddies (program volunteers) at the Middletown-based program.

Rally Caps Sports began as a dream of volunteer Paul Hooker when he coached in the Lincroft Little League. He recalls looking at a little girl in a wheelchair frustrated from the sidelines because she couldn’t participate in the fun. That ignited a passion of Paul and his wife Margo to create a grassroots program where all kids of any ability could play sports. The simple premise was to match up each player with a buddy who could assist the player in the sport in a one-to-one ratio. The sports’ offerings increased from baseball to include basketball to soccer, flag football, golf, volleyball, cheerleading, yoga and dancercise. It currently serves about 200 players in the greater area including Monmouth, Ocean and Middlesex counties. The program is made possible with over 350 volunteers, like the RBR students, who come from all over Monmouth County. The Middletown program also depends on adult volunteers like Mark Cartier to supervise it. Mr. Cartier became involved with the program when his daughter participated and remained involved ever since.

While Middletown was the sole location for the program for over 20 years, the concept was recently brought national primarily at college campuses locations, furthering the Hookers’ dream. Executive Director Luke Sims, based out of Bowling Green University, explains that the program is located on college campuses because of the abundance of volunteers and accessible sporting venues. The Rally Cap program currently has 13 locations throughout Ohio, Michigan and the Hookers’ home state of New Jersey, including Middletown (Central New Jersey location), Seaton Hall University and Ramapo College. While for years, the program ran primarily with the philanthropy of its founders, it now accepts donations through its website and requests a $20 fee for each player to help fund the program.

According to Luke Sims, that fee mostly covers the Rally Cap shirt and season–end ceremonial trophy presented to each player. On that day, the smiles of every player rival that of Ryan Calabrese when he sinks a basket.

For more information on the national program visit their website at http://www.rallycapsports.org. The Central New Jersey program can be viewed at http://www.rcscnj.org/.