Team Heroes in the News
TAKING A DIFFERENT PATH
Written by: Patty Servidio
Team Heroes is an organization that totally takes a different path from conventional camps and programs to assist children with autism. Conceived and founded in 2009 by Ellen Thalhamer III, MS.Ed, BSCE, a special education teacher with a mission, Team Heroes is an eighteen week program that has two important goals to bring to the world of autism. The first of these goals is that Team Heroes focuses on providing families of children with autism the opportunity to participate in a sport. The second goal is to provide families of children with autism the necessary materials and supplies needed in order to educate their child, as school districts customarily do not provide these needs for families.
With team Heroes based out of West Islip presently, and the soccer and t-ball based out of Half Hallow Hills, Team Heroes is the brainchild of Ellen Thalhamer III. A special education teacher with a focus in home education of children with autism, as well as an Applied Behavior Analyst (ABA), Ellen felt that there was not a place in organized sports for these kids. Feeling frustrated for parents who wanted their children to participate in organized sports in a judgment free zone, Ellen began to think about this; children with autism and their parents wanted to become a part of the family atmosphere of organized sports, and to have that feeling of satisfaction when one plays a sport. As Ellen stated, "I wanted something to be done for these kids; I wanted to see them become part of a team, to feel that sense of accomplishment, to receive a trophy. I felt badly for the parents that they didn’t have this available to them" Frustrated by this, Ellen opted to begin her own program, with the help of her friends, Joan Childs, Jessica Davis and sister Tracy Thalhamer. And in 2009, Team Heroes was born. 14 children enrolled that year, and in 2010, the program grew to an enrollment of 25 children.
By 2011, Team Heroes had tripled its initial enrollment, with fifty children. Because of the size of the program, as well as the increased interest by the community, Ellen and Joan decided to take Team Heroes to the next level, and Team Heroes became a non-for-profit organization that year, in order to keep costs down for families who wanted what Ellen and Joan were offering.
In the beginning, when Team Heroes was a fledgling program, Ellen brought her sister, Tracy, her brother, Brian, and several others aboard; those volunteers were Adam Weiss, Joan Childs, Jessica Davis, Joey Governale, and Minnie Graze. Supporters of Team Heroes in the very beginning were Joan Childs, and Steve Governale. Steve was the original sponsor of Team Heroes. Joan served as secretary to the organization, and became Ellen's partner for Team Heroes. Joey became Team Heroes' most beloved coach by the children of the camp; he was in charge of the "STOP-GO" game, and when he was not present, children began to ask where he was. Fiercely dedicated to the cause, Joan, Joey and Steve became incredibly important and visible parts of the Team Heroes program. In 2011, Joan, Joey and Steve retired, but have continued to be supporters of Team Heroes, Inc.
By 2010, Ellen's parents, Kurt and Ellen, became involved, along with Kristen Larkin, a special education teacher with whom Ellen was working, Chris Sievers, Ellen’s boyfriend, and Emily Sadler, a volunteer with no special education experience, but who had become one of the volunteers to pick up the concept of ABA so quickly. Kurt, Ellen II, Kristen, Chris and Emily became coaches, along with those who had already been coaches from 2009. According to Ellen's sister, Tracy, "Ellen came home with this idea of starting a camp for children with autism. She was so excited that she got our whole family excited! We all decided to join her. It was an amazing experience, and we have all been "hooked" ever since!"
Team Heroes camp, which features soccer from the end of March to the end of May, as well as T-Ball from June to the end of July, is run by special education teachers, as well as other dedicated and loving volunteers. It is run in an ABA-type format, which means that skills are broken down to their most basic levels, and that children are rewarded for positive behaviors with praise and reinforcement, and then using those skills in a generalized format in a natural setting. By using this method, which, children with autism of all ages can gain language, academic and basic living skills, while other children with autism may fully recover their skills. The ABA format provides absolutely no punishment for unwanted behaviors. The program also includes the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) which assists children with autism in gaining communication skills. As many as 25% of children with autism have no functional speech, have a limited vocabulary, or have difficulty with pronunciation of words. PECS uses pictures and symbols and the use of ABA techniques to assist children with autism to express themselves, thereby lowering frustration in these kids, as well as helping their families with the value of truly understanding their child.
With present costs of teaching a child with autism via the ABA system at approximately $50,000 yearly, as well as the intensiveness of the program (which requires about 20 to 40 hours weekly of constant reinforcement, and children at this age lose focus very quickly), this puts even more stress upon already challenged families. And this is where Team Heroes comes in.
Team Heroes is all about modifying the program that they offer, in order to fit an individual child's needs, at low cost to families. The program, which assists children with autism between the ages of 3 and 9 years of age and their siblings, is $35 for each session. Session A, which assists children with soccer skills, began their season on March 24, 2012. The soccer program runs from March through May 26, which is Soccer Trophy Fun Day, and the cost is $35. The program runs every Saturday, weather permitting, from 10 am to 10:45 am for children ages 3 to 5, and from 11 am to 11:45 am for children ages 6 through 9. Session B, which teaches T-Ball, begins on May 19th (sign up day, from 12 - 3), and runs every Saturday from June 2nd through July 28th, which is T-Ball Trophy Fun Day. Each session teaches such skills as teamwork, passing and kicking, basic skills of the sport being learned, sharing, turn taking and waiting behaviors, socialization, as well as other positive lessons that can be learned in an organized setting. Parents must be available during the camp time, in order to interact with their children in a healthy setting where everybody gets fit and has fun. Children with autism and their parents from all over Long Island and New York are invited to join; there are several families who have come from as far away as Queens and Port Jefferson to enter this very inspiring program. One special note is the fact that nobody is turned away from Team Heroes because of lack of finances; those families with special financial situations and needs will be taken into account, so that all children will have the opportunity to learn a sport and play on a team.
Team Heroes relies on their volunteers, who are comprised of dedicated and loving individuals, special education teachers, and college students who have a special education focus. All volunteers are carefully screened and interviewed by Ellen and her team, in order to be sure that those applicants will be willing to undergo the task of learning how to interact in the most basic way with children, in order to foster self-esteem for these kids, as well as to assist in learning to interact with others. Volunteers are asked to find out information about autism; some volunteers without experience were asked to watch a program on PBS, "Autism: Coming of Age", which screened on February 11. Volunteers are also oriented at a special orientation day, via a PowerPoint presentation and a full question and answer segment, in order to have the knowledge to understand what a child with autism and their families experience on a daily basis. The orientation is informative, friendly, and fun. Volunteers, as well as the children in the camp, are given ID badges to wear (which were donated by cousin Nick Murgolo of Novelty Pleat of Deer Park). Children have special information on the back of their badges, such as allergies, emergency contacts, and any information that would further assist coaches, including whether or not a child suffers from seizures, has biting or elopement behaviors, or anything else that would keep both the child and all children, as well as coaches, safe.
The coaches from the beginning have been an intrinsic part of the Team Heroes program, according to Ellen. And all of her volunteers since have been incredibly important as well. Minnie Graze, who has been with Team Heroes since the beginning, serves not only as the camp's equipment manager and one of the coaches, but is the liaison between those parents and children who speak Spanish and the Team Heroes coaches. She is a dedicated volunteer who comes up with many new ideas for the program. Jessica Davis, who has been with Team Heroes since 2009, is a student who is studying psychology and works with children in special education programs; she worked with Ellen as her assistant at DDI, and has done much work behind the scenes for the program. Kristen Larkin, who began in 2010, is a special education teacher who presently works with Ellen at Bilinguals Inc.; incredibly dedicated, Kristen works behind the scenes with a special focus on safety and documentation for families in order to ensure the safety of all. Kristin also laminates the "Social Stories" prints and has designed the Team Heroes badges. Brian Thalhamer serves as coach, and has been with Team Heroes since 2009. Adam Weiss is a coach, and also handles the financial aspect of the organization, as well as the paperwork for Team Heroes. Chris Sievers has been a coach since 2010. He is the team’s superman, dressing up for the children on Fun Day.
According to Kurt and Ellen Thalhamer II, who began volunteering in 2010, they are both so proud of their three children for giving of themselves through coaching, phone calls, fundraisers, Fun Day, and the like, to get this organization up and running for those who truly need it. Kurt states that, "One of the kids in the camp referred to me as 'the fat guy in the red shirt' - and I still have that picture on my refrigerator!" Both Kurt and Ellen feel "addicted" to Team Heroes, and truly miss it when it is over. Ellen II stated that it is very enjoyable, and that she and Kurt are both present every Saturday for camp.
Tracy Thalhamer began as one of the original coaches in 2009. In 2012, Tracy began the job of handling the fundraising for the organization. Fundraising became important in 2012 as the camp continued to grow, and Team Heroes Inc. became a non-for-profit. Tracy has been successful in organizing fundraisers for this year. On April 21st, Tracy organized "Dance For Autism - Zumba Fundraiser" with Liz Essig of Dance Arts Developmental Center in Islip Terrace. Three sessions were scheduled, for a $10 donation. $8 of the $10 was donated to Team Heroes, and the organization made over $700 for supplies for the camp, as well as for Trophy Fun Days.
The next fundraiser is scheduled for April 29th at Farrell's of Brooklyn in West Islip, called the "Team Heroes Triple Play", which runs from 3 pm to 7 pm. A suggested donation of $10 will be collected at the door; all donations go directly to Team Heroes, for much needed educational supplies and sports equipment. Another fundraiser will be scheduled on June 10th, at Boomer's in Medford , from 11 am to 9 pm. For $20, one will receive a wrist bracelet, which allows the wearer to get onto all of the rides in the park. $10 of the collected fee will go directly to Team Heroes.
Other fundraising events include the Co-Ed Charity Tournament for Team Heroes, through the Lindenhurst Bubble Soccer Club. There are two fundraisers that the soccer club has done for Team Heroes; one has already been held, and one will be held on 5/12. Coach Tracy, as well as some of the newer coaches, will be on one of the co-ed teams; there is a fee to become a team member of the soccer tournament, but spectators are welcome!
Safety is a major concern at Team Heroes, for children and parents, as well as for volunteers. In order to keep a safe environment for everyone, Team Heroes coaches keep an eye out for children with the potential to elope from the camp. Family members must be present and on the field with their children at all times. Team Heroes is constantly conceptualizing new ways to create a safe environment so that the children can flourish. Children are given badges, which include family contacts and personal information regarding diet, medical conditions, and any behavioral issues that might be of concern/to be watched for. Whistles are given to each coach, and must be used only in case of emergency. Sneakers are required; due to the closeness of the children to coaches, cleats are not permitted. And during inclement weather, the camp is cancelled, as wet grass, rain, and thunder in the distance can all serve as potential safety hazards for all involved.
Ellen is presently studying for her Board Certification in Behavior Analysis, which is the highest certification in the ABA program. Classes ended in December 2011, and Ellen plans to test for her certification within the year. Ellen wishes to thank all of her sponsors (and there are many); she would like to offer a special thanks to the following, who have donated time, funds, and their services for her organization:
Hills School District, who so willingly donated their field for our camp."
“Men on the Move, our free storage unit for all our sporting supplies, donated by John Beyer”
"*Steve Governale, our original supporter from 2009-2011, and his wife Joan and son, Joey."
"*Beverly Fortune of the LI Press, who got so many of our donators to assist us."
"*Lindenhurst Bubble Soccer Club, who are hosting two charity tournaments for us."
"*Novelty Pleats in Deer Park
, (cousin Nick) who donated all of our badges for our children and
"*Farrell's of Brooklyn
in West Islip, who will be hosting a fundraiser for us on April 29th."
"*Boomer's of Medford
, who is hosting a fundraiser for Team Heroes on June 10th."
"*Liz Essig of Dance
Arts Development Center in Islip Terrace, for donating her center, as well as
$8 out of every $10 collected, to help us raise $700 at our fundraiser for Team Heroes on 4/21."
"*West Islip Library, who donated their rooms to us for interviews and orientations"
Fun Day is an event that Ellen and her coaches look forward to yearly. Fun Day includes parents, grandparents, and family members of the children of the camp; involvement is key to the success of this special day. Trophies are given, and there are games, races, sensory tables, crafts, water activities, prizes, and special events, to name a few things that Ellen and her crew have planned for the kids.
It is bittersweet for Ellen and her volunteers on T-Ball Trophy Day. The volunteers have eight months off from Team Heroes, and they certainly miss it! There are already volunteers who are asking if they can come back as coaches next year; Ellen says that the waiting list for volunteers is now up to about 30 applicants. Although it is a sad moment when everything is put away and the season is over, Ellen says that March is so exciting, because she knows that Team Heroes Sports is about to begin, and she will be looking forward to her Saturdays again!
As Ellen stated, "It is so wonderful to see the parents' dedication and love for their children. To see those parents' faces on Fun Day, that they are most appreciative, satisfied and fulfilled that their children could participate in this event - well, there's lots of work to this whole process, but all of the joy that I feel, looking at the parents, is worth it."
When asked what is up next for Team Heroes, after T-Ball ends, Ellen said, "I'm hoping to expand Team Heroes to add two more sports. But for that, I will need more funding. I have more than enough volunteers! But we are waiting on Federal Non-For-Profit funding, and until we get approved for that, we can't do it right now, because it's just too expensive."
Honored by Fortune 52 on March 12th of this year, Ellen prefers to remain in the background, while she credits her coaches, volunteers, parents and children of Team Heroes with helping the organization become so successful. That this honor comes directly before April, which is Autism Awareness Month, makes this recognition even more heartwarming.
Ellen also said that she would like to thank all of the parents of the children who attend the Team Heroes Sports camp. "I'd like to thank the parents for their dedication and love for their children. Their children are so beautiful, and the progress they make during camp makes all the difference." Ellen would also like to send a special thank you to all of the children that have been at Team Heroes camps, "Thank you all for your happy, loving personas, beautiful hearts and glowing smiles."
Honored by Fortune 52 on March 12th of this year, Ellen prefers to remain in the background, while she credits her coaches, volunteers, parents and children of Team Heroes with helping the organization become so successful. Ellen states that she never thought that Team Heroes would ever get this big. The thing she relies on the most, that Team Heroes relies on the most, is the dedication of their volunteers. She said, "Team Heroes would never be what it is without the dedication of our volunteers and all the parents who are present."
Ellen's dream for children with autism to be involved in a sport has grown, from a small idea in the back of her mind, to a reality. Her dream has been conceived of the heart, blessed by like-minded individuals with a commitment and dedication to care, and has great promise for the future of children with autism. Team Heroes has evolved into an impressive, lovingly dedicated program to help children with autism, as well as their parents, to become a part of something bigger than themselves. The joy that comes from this program is in itself its own reward. Like the verse by Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken", Ellen Thalhamer has had the courage to take the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.
To contact Ellen, or to find out more about Team Heroes volunteering, or more information about autism, please go to www.teamheroessports.com. The site is a wealth of information.
Donations can be made on the website to benefit the children of Team Heroes Inc.