By Catherine Van
Class of 2012
SPOKANE, Wash. – Ice hockey is a rough sport, but a group of local special-needs children look forward to the ice, speed, and even the inevitable tumbles every Friday night when Gonzaga Special Hockey provides a joyous break from their everyday struggles. The program also offers student-mentors from the University’s hockey team with a unique volunteer opportunity to live Gonzaga’s mission by serving others, particularly the underserved.
A $5,000 grant from the USA Hockey Foundation pays for ice time and players’ equipment. The program was founded and is directed by Mark Derby, Gonzaga professor of special education. It’s part of the American Special Hockey Association “Where every player is a star.”
Head Coach Kevin Beiers, a Gonzaga graduate student, said the program teaches the children far more than hockey.
“We’re able to work with kids with challenging behaviors and teach them how to keep their stick on the ice, how to treat their neighbors,” Beiers said. “Those are important lessons to learn.”
The children, all too familiar with adversity, seem fearless. While many sports pose difficulties for these students, hockey somehow is different. The children are themselves on the ice, where the focus is on fun. The program also gives children the confidence and skills they need to lead active lives.
“This program increases socialization for kids with severe disabilities,” said Beiers. “If they have an adult working with them one-on-one and providing reinforcement for participating, it increases their ability to participate during practice.”
The Gonzaga students gather at the Riverfront Park Ice Palace every Friday to share their time and expertise with the eager, young learners and pass on far more than pucks. The program teaches life lessons for the children and GU students.
“Just because they’re different does not mean that they can’t go out and do the same things we can,” said Colin McQuilkin, a Gonzaga senior hockey team player. “There are kids from the start who couldn’t stand up on their skates. Now, everything I can do on the ice, they can do.”
The program relies on Gonzaga’s student-volunteers. Beiers can relate to the children’s struggle. He too had a difficult childhood – until someone reached out to help him.
“I dropped out of high school and a lot of the adult influences in my life helped me realize that my life isn’t just about the here and the now, but the future,” Beiers said. “That’s what we’re doing with these kids. We’re just reaching out.” Click the image below to view a short video of Gonzaga Special Hockey:
Falls don’t keep these children down. They pop right up – humbling the bravest coaches and mentors.
“I didn’t have a whole lot of patience starting out,” McQuilkin said. “But I’ve grown to learn that you need to wait and these kids will get it.”
The project, which includes an affiliated research project, draws enthusiastic support from players, parents and GU students. So far, more than 80 percent of parents have indicated they “like the progress” their children are making. One parent noted her son “loves hockey and he likes to tell people he is a hockey player.”
Parents also track how much their child talks about hockey. Those outcomes are encouraging as well, Derby said. The players indicate a desire to return 94 percent of the time.
The goal of the program is to demonstrate how hockey helps developmentally challenged children, said Derby who hopes Gonzaga Special Hockey will inspire more ASHA teams locally.
For now, it’s inspiring many local children, their parents, and Gonzaga students.