Even though the Montgomery Cheetahs’ home is Bethesda, the team has a long-established relationship with students from Quince Orchard High School. These QO students play youth or high school hockey together, and they volunteer to share their experiences with the Cheetahs, a special needs hockey team based at Cabin John Ice Rink.
Jared Katon, now a junior at QO, has been volunteering with the Cheetahs since middle school. “This volunteer experience has given me so many new opportunities that I would have never imagined. … I mostly enjoy sharing my love and knowledge of the game with these amazing players who also love stepping on the ice,” he said. “Personally, I take away as much as I can every single Saturday morning. Whether it’s patience with players or patience with myself from getting up early after being at the rink until 12 a.m. the night before, I love being there.”
Newcomer Jack Mendelow, a freshman at QO, said that he fell in love with the program after his first day as a Cheetah mentor seeing the athletes learn and grow.
“One time I was paired up with a kid who didn’t know how to shoot a puck. I worked with him and taught him how to shoot and that boosted his confidence for the rest of the practice,” he said. “When you see something like that, you get a good feeling because you feel like you’re really helping someone. That’s what this program is really about.”
The Montgomery Cheetahs began simply 13 years ago as a bar mitzvah project. Two teenage hockey players wanted to do something that would honor their cousin, who has autism. From the program’s humble beginnings with only eight skaters, the Cheetahs have blossomed into a well-established organization with 65 participants, each with a developmental delay. The team takes the ice every Saturday morning to learn the game of hockey with the help of youth mentors.
Sean Twombly, Montgomery Cheetahs executive director and parent of a Cheetah, loves seeing how much the mentors take away from the experience. They come back week after week, often long after they have fulfilled their Student Service Learning (SSL) hours requirements, he said.
“For some of the mentors, the bonds occur around success. A mentor feels a great sense of accomplishment to teach one of our young athletes how to skate, or stick handle, or later take a wrist shot. These accomplishments might come over weeks, months or years. It is what draws a mentor back each week,” Twombly noted.
For some mentors, the personal connection with the athletes is what is most meaningful, he added. A mentor might be partnered with someone “who is shy or has a social disability, and over time they draw the athlete out of their shell. They can joke and have fun, all while being on the ice and playing a game they both love. That is a huge part of our success, these mentors sharing their love of the game to our kids,” he said.
The lessons learned from being part of this organization extend far beyond skating, shooting and scoring. The relationships that are formed are carried over into the hallways of schools, many in the Quince Orchard cluster.
“Many of the high school-aged athletes from the Cheetahs attend these same high schools, but may be in self-contained special ed programs,” Twombly said. “When our athletes walk down the hall, and one of our peer mentors says hello to them, it can be a huge boost to their confidence and their feeling of acceptance. The Cheetahs players can wear their team jersey on jersey day and show off that they too can be part of a sports team.”
Some mentors also participate in their school’s Best Buddies chapter, and this provides “a chance to create additional connections with our athletes and other special needs students in their high school community,” Twombly said.
The Montgomery Cheetahs organization has created opportunities not only for kids to learn to play a sport in an environment that supports their particular needs, but the team also has fostered an environment of understanding and acceptance where everyone learns that there is more that brings us together than sets us apart. “I hope they get as much from me as I get from them,” Katon said.
The Montgomery Cheetahs will be holding their 8th annual Cheetah-thon fundraiser on April 27, 3 to 5 p.m. at the Rockville Ice Arena. Funds raised from this event will help cover the cost of the team’s ice time for the entire year. The Cheetah-thon will feature a 45-minute game between coaches and mentors. If you are interested in donating, sponsoring the event, or purchasing a raffle ticket, visit montgomery-cheetahs.org/cheetah-thon.