At the start of last summer, Kentlands residents Pierre and Sebastien Zeineddin started thinking about the student service learning hours they needed to complete as required by Montgomery County Public Schools. The brothers, now respectively a freshman and sophomore in the International Baccalaureate program at Richard Montgomery High School, are both competitive swimmers. Their mother, Alex Stavitsky-Zeineddin, suggested a volunteer activity that involved swimming, since they were both so passionate about the sport.
Fortunately for everyone involved, Stavitsky-Zeineddin stumbled upon Sports Plus in her research. According to their website “Sports Plus is a non-profit organization that provides uniquely structured sports, swim, camp and social programs to children and young adults with mild to moderate autistic spectrum disorders, ADD/ADHD and other developmental disabilities.” Founded in 2005 by Lakelands residents Tom and Natalie Liniak, the parents of two children, one of whom is on the autism spectrum, the goal of the organization is to provide a way for children like their son to participate in sports and fitness activities like typical children do, but with the additional supports that aren’t generally available in communities.
This seemed like a perfect match for Pierre, 15, and Sebastien, 14. The boys have a young family member who was born with a genetic anomaly that has left him significantly affected with communication issues, low muscle tone and seizures. Seeing someone they care about touched by a neurological disability awakened an interest in them both about neurobiology and the brain. Both boys thought that working with kids with a disability would be a great way for them to explore how to teach people who learn differently.
Pierre and Sebastien’s foray into volunteering with the swim program at Sports Plus was an eye-opening experience, according to their mother. Stavitsky-Zeineddin said the boys come home with great stories about the kids that they work with. They have come to realize that while the kids they work with are different, they also bring different and unusual gifts to the table. There is one student in particular who has truly resonated with both young men.
“One student is incredible and exceeds our expectations every day. We have taught him to do not just one, not two, but four laps of freestyle with a turn, which helps him swim in one continuous motion,” Pierre said. Without the structured lesson setting and patient and compassionate teachers, this kind of achievement might never happen.
As a result of their experience with Sports Plus, the boys are starting a new club at Richard Montgomery High School and want to get more kids involved in the program. They want their peers to have a greater understanding of autism spectrum disorder that, according to a Health Resources and Services Administration-led study released last month, affects 1 in 40 U.S. children. The Zeineddin brothers plan to ask speakers such as scientists and therapists to
address the new club at Richard Montgomery, so that kids their age understand the breadth of this disorder, the different ways it affects people, and what is known so far about causes, treatments and therapies.
Pierre and Sebastien have learned so much in the short time they have been with Sports Plus. “As a whole, we have seen what comes out of giving kids hope, regardless if they have a disability or not. Every new technique we teach brings that hope in the form of those ‘victorious’ moments. It can range from just getting a student’s head to bob in the water to teaching a complicated flip turn. Once they see that they can do it, at that point anything is possible, regardless if they have autism or not,” Pierre said.
Pierre and Sebastien have discovered that they have much more in common with the kids who come to Sports Plus for swim lessons, than differences. “We have learned that most of the students are like us. They too like to have fun on weekends, go out to movies, play sports. We’ve learned to connect with them and give them an outlet for all the stresses that autism causes—something that isn’t focused on much. Autism is something that makes them super-sensory, but they still are people like us,” Pierre said.
The Liniaks are thrilled to have Pierre and Sebastien on the Sports Plus team. “Pierre and Sebastien Zeineddin are exceptional young men who are also highly skilled swim athletes,” said Natalie Liniak. “From the beginning, they have expressed and shown a great deal of interest in learning and connecting with our neuro-diverse, Sports Plus kids and teens. They have been using their swim talents as a bridge to connect and teach them a very valuable skill for safety purposes, social interaction, physical fitness and independence. It is their goal, through their experience in our program, to become educated enough to bring their knowledge of our population to others, in order to inspire, motivate and educate those outside of our community. We are so pleased to have them on board and look forward to working with them on the goals they wish to achieve.”