The Surprising Way a 16-Year-Old Is Teaching Kids About Special Needs and Bullying

Zach Certner helps teens understand their peers with special needs through a simulation of what it’s like to have a disability.

Zach Certner has made a difference in the lives of many children with and without special needs. (Photo: generationOn)
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Zach Certner believes the best people to spread an anti-bullying message for special needs children are their peers.

That's why at 16, Zach and his older brother, Matthew, founded Special Needs Athletics Program (SNAP) in their hometown of Morristown, NJ. SNAP is aimed at giving special needs children confidence and self-respect through sports.

“What we like to do is form a relationship between the kids and mentors, and it becomes strong by the end of the year,” Zach says. “We do not turn anyone away because there are no programs like this anywhere in the community. If people call up, we accept them.”

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During the school year, more than 100 special needs students and 150 mentors attend the five-night-a-week programs in various centers and churches around the community. Special needs students learn basketball, soccer, taekwondo, baseball or yoga skills. Art and music therapy and tutoring are also taught.

So far, the program has reached 150 special needs families with 750 mentors who range from third-grade students to high school seniors.

In 2009, Zach was talking to special needs children and learned that most of them hated school. The children told him that they were left alone at lunch and ridiculed throughout the day by classmates.

We needed to promote an entire compassionate and anti-bullying message.

“That took me aback and made me want to educate people,” Zach says. “I wanted to teach them how to help special needs kids and anyone else in the community who is at risk. We needed to promote an entire compassionate and anti-bullying message.”

He studied the daily experiences of special needs kids with various disabilities like autism, dyslexia, cerebral palsy or blindness. Along with a team, Zachary designed a unique hands-on model with simulations. Eight New Jersey school districts have now invited mentors to present the model in gym or health classes.

The program is 40 minutes with the first 10 minutes teaching how to interact with special needs children. For the next 20-25 minutes, students experience a simulation of what it’s like to have a disability.

“The most powerful thing is our training is led by kids teaching kids.” Zachary says. “That means they see that if these kids are doing it, I can do it. That’s important because bullying is such a problem in the U.S. right now.”

At the end, students are challenged to make a difference in the life of a special needs child.

“We ask them [the students] if they know someone with autism and they all raise their hands,” Zach says. “We then ask them, ‘Do you know to interact with someone with autism and they don’t raise their hands. We ask at the end and they all know how to do it and they are all comfortable as well.”

SNAP is working.

Parents tell Zach that their children are happier at lunch because someone ate with them. Principals tell him students are kinder to each other. For his work, Zachary was one of six youth volunteer leaders from around that country who was recognized with the Hasbro Community Action Hero Award at the generationOn annual benefit earlier this year.

GenerationOn is “the global youth service movement igniting the power of all kids to make their mark on the world.” As Points of Light’s youth service enterprise, generationOn “inspires, equips and mobilizes youth to take action.”

Now a nonprofit, SNAP’s long-term goals include working with the New Jersey Department of Education to broaden the anti-bullying program across the state. After that, Zach wants to go national.

“In order to do this, we need to expand and we need additional funding to spread a model of awareness and acceptance for these kids,” he says. “We are definitely making a difference with the mainstream and the special needs kids by teaching them anti-bullying skills and seeing them interact with each other.”

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