The Sportin’ Life

| November 2, 2012 | 0 Comments

When attorney Jerry Harris is on your side, challenges are met, growth is guaranteed. Five years ago, he turned his considerable legal ability and passion to the development of “SPORTS for Exceptional Athletes”

Ian Rey at the Holiday Bowl parade participates in SPORTS.

(S4EA, or SPORTS) – fueled in no small part by his own developmentally disabled sister, and his family’s dedication to social and public service. “I think a measure of our society,” he states, “is how we treat our disabled and disadvantaged.”

We talked about SPORTS:

LW: You helped found and fund S4EA? What compelled you to take an interest?

JH: I was born and raised in San Diego. I remember when there were cows in Mission Valley. My 90-year old father set a great example for his five kids. He was always involved in our activities: president of the Little League or Indian Guides – also, various charities and politics. I practiced with him as an attorney for 10 years, until he retired. I was a founding member of the San Diego Mediation Center (now the National Conflict Resolution Center) in 1990, and eventually executive director for a year. Recently, I was president of the San Diego Table Tennis association; now, I’m chairman of Balboa Park/Morley Field Recreation Committee.

I’ve been involved in the developmentally disabled community my whole life. When my sister was born, doctors recommended that she be institutionalized. My parents disagreed and raised her as any other child. She worked for City Schools for 20 years, today she lives independently (with some assistance) and owns her own condominium.

I began working in Special Olympics in the late seventies, coaching and helping run tournaments. When Special Olympics became nationally focused as a fund-raising – instead of a service – organization, I joined with an energized group of parents, volunteers and staff to create S4EA. We had corporate support from Qualcomm, SDGE and Home Depot, Rotary and Kiwanis, plus, importantly, a few individual donors and foundations.

S4EA was formed because, with great energy and vision, parents wanted a local group to oversee activities for the developmentally disabled, our ‘special athletes.’ Now, more than 1,400 athletes participate in more than 20 sports, plus social and recreational activities. Our athletes look forward to these with great anticipation; they comprise a significant component of their lives.

LW: Who were (and are) your compatriots in its inception? What role do you fulfill now?

JH: Walter Jackson is the executive director and has worked with Special Athletes for more than four decades. Clara Downes is associate director. Many of the original board members who had relatives in the programs or worked in the industry still support the organization. Today our board has greater reach into the community and greater access to financial resources. I’m chairman of the advisory board. My job is to bring resources, skills and attention to the organization.

LW: What ‘hole’ did you fill in the lives of those who benefit from your activities/services?

JH: Our athletes enjoy the excitement of participating in group and sports events, and benefit by opportunities to develop social and personal skills, which translates to other facets of their lives. Floor hockey practice, for instance, is where you get to see your friends, gain fitness and get to compete like everyone else. The skills they develop through SPORTS helps them transition to involvement in the community, i.e. other civic activities, often jobs.

LW: Who are the athletic instructors working with you, volunteers? If someone were interested in helping, do they need athletic credentials?

JH: Our volunteers are screened; we ask them to make regular and substantial commitment. They join celebrity supporters, like Bill Walton and Monique Henderson. Volunteers don’t need any specific skills, although knowledge of some sports is helpful. We need people that can commit to at least one practice a week for 10 weeks. Some of our volunteers have been around for decades.

LW: Give us a few examples of the typical person you serve.

JH: Typically, that person is in their 20s or 30s, though we have kids as young as five and adults in their 70s. Everyone may participate, including the siblings and friends of the athletes. About 10 to 20 percent of our participants are not disabled. We want everyone to be able to play together.

For instance, Joey and Tommy are brothers; they both have down syndrome and developmental disabilities. Soon, they’ll be able to compete together with their sister Nicole, in floor hockey, flag football and volleyball. This winter, Joey will be able to go cross country skiing. Tommy has gained the confidence needed to be a valued employee at Lindberg Schweitzer Elementary School. Joey has finished school and is just beginning a work training program. For many of our athletes, S4EA is their only social and sports outlet.

LW: I presume your athletes age out at some point. Have you followed any to assess the program’s impact on them, longer term?

JH: No one ages out of SPORT. Some athletes have been playing together for more than 20 years. I’ve known Ian Rey since he was born, 30 years ago. He works at Sprouts and participates in dozens of our activities. He plays floor hockey, basketball and volleyball. He has friends that he has developed over more than two decades. SPORTS helps keep him active and healthy.

LW: How are you funded? What’s in it for a modest, or even generous, philanthropist?

JH: We’re funded by personal donations, corporate contributions and fund raisers, mainly, ‘Taste of SPORTS’ and the ‘Guacamole Bowl.’ Any donor can be satisfied that their gift will be multiplied by many donated hours and will provide meaningful activities to a population with very little control over their lives.

LW: You’ve got an event coming up this month, yes?

JH: Yes. Our next fundraiser is ‘Band Together’ (, 8:30 p.m., Friday, November 16 at Tio Leo’s (5302 Napa St., 92110). Musicians from five different bands are going to play, and all proceeds will benefit S4EA. This concept has worked well on the east coast and raises thousands of dollars for non-profits. Please join us.

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