Teen-run program turns sport into mitzvot

Teen-run program turns sport into mitzvot

For Zach Certner of Morristown, caring is a family affair. Zach was nine when his older brother Matt, still in high school, cofounded the Special Needs Athletic Program — or SNAP — to provide sports clinics, coaching, and mentoring to children often excluded by regular recreational leagues.

Zach helped out from day one, and when Matt left for college a few years ago, Zach, now 16 and a junior at Morristown High School, took over as leader. The mentors, all in middle or high school, staff clinics — all free of charge — coaching kids in sports like basketball, baseball, soccer, and golf. The organization also offers sessions in music, art, Tae Kwon Do, yoga, and swimming, with some of those requiring a nominal charge.

Zach’s family recently invited a reporter to meet one of the young volunteer coaches: Owen Wolfson, 13, also of Morristown, who made SNAP part of his March 2 bar mitzva celebration.

Owen raised more than $200 for SNAP at his school, Pingry in Basking Ridge, from “casual Friday” donations, and asked his bar mitzva guests to make a donation to SNAP instead of giving him gifts.

Sandy Certner, Zach’s mother, reported that the total raised by Owen had reached $10,000.

Asked why he chose SNAP as the beneficiary of his mitzva project, Owen said, “My older brother did something like this for his bar mitzva,” he said. “I love sports, so when I heard Zach talk about SNAP, it seemed like a really good match for me.”

Said Zach: “I’ve worked with a lot of kids trying to help them make their mitzva projects more meaningful, and I’ve hardly ever come across someone like Owen. He’s just amazing.”

Zach’s efforts in helping youngsters and recruiting volunteers like Owen have drawn a lot of recognition. In the past year alone, he received 14 local and national grants and awards.

Most recently he was chosen as one of two New Jersey teens selected for the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, a nationwide program honoring young people for outstanding acts of volunteerism.

Though he said he enjoys public speaking — and his mother said he lights up with enthusiasm in front of an audience — getting Zach to talk about himself one-to-one can be like pulling teeth. Fitting perhaps, for the son of two dentists, with vague aspirations to maybe become one himself.

He is more willing to talk about his work with kids, and the “magical” impact of sports. Tall and strapping, Zach plays on three varsity teams and is in advanced placement classes in all his subjects.

As competitive as he is himself, he said the SNAP clinics aim to let children simply have fun with their peers, without feeling inadequate.

He spoke of his efforts to expand children’s empathy and discourage bullying through a presentation that uses props to help kids without disabilities experience a visual impairment or mobility issues.

Asked what motivates him, he shrugged — as if this sort of caring is the norm. But he did agree when his mother said she and her husband, Bruce, brought up Zach, Matt, and older brother Daniel with a drive to help those less fortunate.

“It’s how I grew up,” she said. “We had very little, but my parents were always involved in helping others, and that’s how our boys are.”

The family belongs to Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael, where Zach was scheduled to make a presentation to students. He said he has been working with about 15 students from area congregations on their mitzva projects, and has a roster of upcoming school and synagogue presentations.

Zach doesn’t run SNAP alone. Sandy handles the administration — more, he admitted, than he fully comprehends — and his father helps, too. The vice principal of his school heads up the coaching efforts, and Zach has enlisted hundreds of young volunteer mentors.

“I like to think of myself as the ‘big ideas’ person,” Zach said, cracking a rare grin. One of his recent ideas has been to train first responders in how to deal with disabled people in emergencies, and he has given the training to the Millburn police, fire, and EMS departments.

To learn more about SNAP, check out SNAPclinics.org.

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