When teenagers go to a sleep-away camp, most are just happy to get away for the summer. But for Joelle Dorskind, a Westhampton Beach High School junior, her last sleep-away camp was more than just a get-away. It was an eye-opener that inspired her to bring Special Olympics, the well-known sports training and competition giant for people with disabilities, to Westhampton Beach High School.
Joelle, who plans to study pre-medicine in college, volunteered to attend Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck, a summer camp for children and adults with disabilities, in Center Moriches last summer. There, campers participate in activities such as swimming and arts and crafts. The camp is organized so that a section is designated for each disability. During her time there, Joelle volunteered to help those in the autism section. It was the first time she had worked with children with special needs and she spoke fondly of her week there.
“It was a great experience,” she said. “Every day I left with something great.”
Since Joelle loved working with the kids at the camp over the summer, she wanted to do something at school involving special needs children. When her sister Nicole, 21, explained to her that they used to have Special Olympics at the Westhampton Beach High School, it sparked her interest in bringing the program back to the school.
After receiving permission from Westhampton Beach Athletic Director Kathy Masterson and other high school officials to use its facilities in October, Joelle started planning for the event, which would bring together her friends and fellow students along with children and adults with disabilities.
As a result of her hard work, the high school hosted a Special Olympics basketball tournament and Olympic Village, where athletes had the opportunity to participate in other activities such as a beanbag toss and soccer ball kick last Sunday.
“There are so many petty things that we go through in life that when you see something like this it puts it right back into perspective,” Masterson said, referring to this weekend’s events. “So all the things that we complain about, that we think we have troubles with, it makes you thank God every day for the gifts that you have in your life.”
In organizing the event, Joelle started by looking up information on-line at the Special Olympics website. She figured the best way to reach someone would be to e-mail the president and CEO of Special Olympics, Neil Johnson.
At first, Joelle didn’t hear anything, so she made some phone calls and after leaving a few messages, Tim Flynn, director of programming for Special Olympics, e-mailed her and explained that Johnson had forwarded her e-mail to him. Once she got in contact with Flynn, things started to roll, Joelle said.
Thanks to Joelle’s diligence, seven basketball teams and more than 100 athletes came to Westhampton Beach to participate in the tournament. A makeshift Olympic Village, where small activities and competitions were held for the athletes, was also constructed across the parking lot in the middle school gym.
“We started talking about what the school could do with Special Olympics,” Flynn said. “It turned out that basketball was the best bet. So once we knew what we were doing, Joelle took the ball, literally, and ran with it. She was awesome.”
The teams were from organizations from Nassau and Suffolk counties, and included the Long Island Developmental Disabilities Service Office Buzz, the Center of Developmental Disabilities Daredevils, and the Association for the Help of Retarded Children Starz.
“From one e-mail to now having over 100 athletes today is phenomenal,” Flynn said, adding that he was astonished that a 16-year-old girl could organize the tournament.
Joelle was at the head of all organizing efforts the event, although, at the suggestion of Masterson, she sought help from student organizations including the student government, of which she is a member, as well as members of the middle school Junior Honor Society, the Westhampton Beach School Board and the Rotary Club of Westhampton. Other individual students from the high school also volunteered to help, and Masterson took care of finding officials to referee the games.
Chris Bower, a member of the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials, and a regular on the court for Section XI boys basketball games, was one of the many referees who volunteered to help.
“Well, we’re referees so we’re always happy to be involved and give our time,” Bower said. “There’s always a core of us and sometimes there are too many volunteers and we have to turn people away, but I have a brother-in-law that has Down syndrome. He’s always been involved in Special Olympics, so it’s something that has been part of my family since I’ve been married.”
“That kid went above and beyond,” Masterson said of Joelle on Sunday. “I wish that one-tenth of the kids were just as motivated as she is. The kids that we have here today are all here because of her. She got them here.”