Sunday at 3pm. Basketball hoops and balls are out. Water coolers are filled. 45 Collegiate students can be found on the floor of the Lower School West Gym, eagerly awaiting their buddy that they see each weekend during the fall and spring seasons of the John Maloney Project.
The John Maloney Project (JMP) was created by Collegiate alum John Maloney ten years ago in order to form a relationship between Collegiate and Faison School for Autism. Virginia Harris (‘16), co-president of JMP, says that John Maloney, whose son has autism, “wanted his kid to be active and to hang out with kids who don’t have autism.” It is clear that he is not the only parent who wanted this for their child; this season about 35 children on the autism spectrum are participating. Additionally, this spring marks the 21st season of the program. Because of the spirit he created the program with, and the spirit he continued to bring each Sunday afternoon, the program changed its name from Open Gym to the John Maloney Project with its founder’s passing in April 2015.
Each participant is paired with a Collegiate student or two. With the consistency of spending time with the same buddy each week, and perhaps between seasons or years, Collegiate students form close bonds with their buddies. Ellie Fleming (‘16) said, “I just like seeing everyone connecting with their buddies and connecting with my own buddy… Some people have formed such special relationships with their buddy that they work with every week, and it is so awesome to see how that has grown over the years.” Todd Ratner, a parent of a participant and an organizer and leader of the project, says that his son Ben has been involved since he was five. Now 15, Ben is still involved each Sunday. Of course, Ben has had different buddies over the years as Collegiate students graduate. Todd said that just recently he and Ben bumped into Ben’s first buddy from ten years ago. Because of the bond they shared, even now they remember the special Sunday afternoons they spent together.
In her Senior Speech, Meg Kell (‘16) talked about her buddy Will Griffin and how he has helped her cope with anxiety. She said, “We first met the fall of my junior year at the John Maloney Project and have been inseparable ever since. We have become so close in this time period that he introduces me as his girlfriend on most occasions.” She said that, “He is known for his classic, heartfelt one liners. For example, after our second session together, we said our goodbyes and just as he was about to walk away, Will grabbed my hand, looked me right in the eyes and said, ‘And remember Meg, God made you special!’” Kell is grateful for the opportunity she has had in this program, and reflecting on it says, “The John Maloney Project has forever changed my life. JMP is one of those things where you always leave feeling better than you did when you first arrived. The happiness this program brings to me is indescribable, and I owe that all to Mr. Maloney.” (You can watch the complete speech here. Kell begins at the 20 min. mark.)
JMP takes place in the Lower School West Gym, where participants can play basketball and use the track and all of the playground equipment. There are swings, a slide, monkey bars, a balance beam, and three step-ups. Kids are encouraged to use everything and try new things instead of sticking to doing only what they like or what is easy for them. Some kids, like 14-year-old Benjamin, like to play basketball. Other kids, like Louis, like to swing. Eight-year-old Puneet likes to do everything but run on the track. By pushing the kids to try new things, they are able to experience things they had not done before. Avery Freeman (‘18) says “JMP is special to me because not only do I love to see Puneet every week, I love getting to see him progress. He always comes with a smile on his face and is ready to have fun. Puneet doesn’t let his autism restrict him. Whether it’s counting the monkey bars or learning to do push ups, he always tries his hardest. Puneet never ceases to amaze me, and I’m so lucky to get to spend my Sunday afternoons with him.”
Often, once Collegiate students get involved with JMP, they stay involved for the rest of their time in high school. Fleming says “I’d done community service at Faison in eighth grade, so I’d been interested in working with kids with autism.” After hearing about the program from current co-president Madison Berger (‘16) in their freshman year, Fleming signed up, and she has continued each year. Berger says she has been involved in the program for the ten years it has been going on because “my brother was a participant in JMP since he was eight, so I have been coming since I was six.”
Even after Reid Hall, a former JMP participant, aged out of the program, he began helping in a different way. If he isn’t making everyone happy by dancing around the track, Hall is taking pictures to document all the fun that is going on each session. Hall took all of the pictures for this article.
JMP is unlike any other program at Collegiate. Many Collegiate and Faison students look forward to Sunday afternoon each week. This is a time to see their friends and play. Anna Johnson (‘17) said “I joined JMP this year because I love to see how happy a group of kids from Faison can make everyone from Collegiate.”
All photos by Reid Hall.