PAASS strives to offer level playing field for special needs

Bennett Vasquez

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As the Redwood boys’ baseball team begins to take the fields in anticipation of their upcoming season, they aren’t alone in their preparation: the special needs athletes of PAASS (Project Awareness and Special Sports) also are gearing up to play.

The PAASS organization helps individuals with disabilities participate in the sports they love. The organization is centered around the idea of teamwork and letting each individual have an equal chance to participate. The volunteers, also called “buddies,” help assist the athletes to make sure the experience is enjoyable for them, according to their website.

PAASS is a nonprofit organization that was created in 2008 by Tyler Barbee, who had an autistic brother with the love of baseball but the inability to play it. Barbee started the organization to create a more encouraging environment for individuals with special needs, offering a wide range of events from sports games to cooking classes and dances.

Two years ago, the Redwood boys’ baseball team assisted the PAASS organization by teaching the athletes a few skills and exposing them to a new social environment, according to Sander Leszczynski. Sander, a junior at Redwood and a returning player for the Redwood baseball team, has worked with PAASS for several years. His brother Alex, a junior at Tamalpais, has special needs and started playing in the PAASS program during sixth grade. Although the Leszczynski brothers grew up loving baseball,  due to Alex’s disability Sander was the only one able to step on the field and play. Sander says that for Alex, it was the feeling of inclusion that made him love participating in PAASS games..

“A lot of times they are left out, so for them, I think it is a big thing of feeling included and feeling like they could be a part of something bigger than themselves,” Sander said.

Sander saw that it took Alex a little while to adjust to the idea of teamwork and participating with everyone else. However, according to Sander, this is a natural learning curve and demonstrates a progression in social interactions.

“He got better with teamwork because I noticed before that especially when he was first starting he was more like, ‘I’ll go off by myself, if it is basketball I’ll go shoot by myself, if it is baseball I’ll go hit off the tee,’” Sander said.

Similarly to Sander, Erica Kelly, the secretary for PAASS, began helping out at the organization because her two sons, both of which have special needs, were unable to play at competitive levels for the sports that they loved. Her youngest son, Ben, graduated from Redwood last year and shared a passion for sports with his brother, jack, but they were unable to play on their high school teams and instead played together through games held by PAASS.

Through the games, the brothers learned teamwork and other life skills that will help them exponentially outside of sports, according to Kelly.

“[They get] self-esteem, confidence, pride and feel like they are just like everybody else instead of the one that is excluded,” Kelly said.

According to Kelly, PAASS has helped her sons develop new friendships with their buddies, which helped them feel more included at school and in the community.

One of Kelly’s most fond memories was when the Redwood boys’ varsity and JV baseball teams came out and played with the special needs athletes. According to Kelly, this was their highlight of the year as they felt included by their peers and were able to play alongside them.

Junior Aaron Kim helps PAASS athlete improve swing.

PAASS offers a wide variety of volunteer opportunities for individuals who are looking to become involved with the organization. For example, Skye Schoenhoeft is a current junior at Tamalpais High School and a volunteer coordinator who has been a part of PAASS since second grade. She joined when her brother entered the program in kindergarten and she has been able to see an immense amount of athletes grow their social skills, some even in a single day.

“I’ve seen other kids who are completely shy and don’t even talk when they first show up to the games and by the end of the game they are chatting with all of the volunteers and playing the game with so much spirit. It’s really great to see,” Schoenhoeft said.

According to Schoenhoeft, the games help boost confidence for the special needs players and exemplify the value of determination; they are shown to not compare themselves to anyone else but themselves.

“The sports give kids a different kind of confidence because there is no competition to be the best; [the goal] is just to do your best. So applying that to the outside world it’s really just about understanding that whatever you do and [whatever] you believe is your best, that is enough. And I think I have even seen that in my brother and his friends that if they try their best they are satisfied and a big part of that does come from PAASS sports,” Schoenhoeft said.

The organization offers a wide range of events from basketball and baseball to cooking and dance. PAASS receives community donations and has various sponsors including the San Rafael Pacifics Baseball Club and 2k, which allows them to collect all the equipment necessary to organize the events. In order to volunteer for PAASS and help out at an event, one can sign up at https://projectawarenessandspecialsports.org.