HomeBensalem TimesHoly Ghost Prep senior runs basketball clinic for locals with special needs

Holy Ghost Prep senior runs basketball clinic for locals with special needs

In his sophomore year, Bobby Williams re-launched the Junior Firebirds, which welcomes all ages

Making a difference: During his sophomore year, Holy Ghost Prep senior Bobby Williams (Penn State sweatshirt) re-launched the Junior Firebirds for locals with special needs. Source: Joanne Williams

Every Sunday morning, locals of all ages with special needs are able to feel a sense of community and camaraderie thanks to the efforts of Holy Ghost Prep senior Bobby Williams.

For the past three years, Williams has helmed the Junior Firebirds, a weekly program that welcomes those with developmental challenges to the Holt Center in Bensalem, where they can play basketball together.

This initiative was originally launched by John Burke, a former Holy Ghost Prep student whose younger brother Tony is autistic, when he was a senior in the 2019-20 school year. However, due to Burke’s graduation and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic, the Junior Firebirds dissolved indefinitely. 

That is, until Williams was made aware of the program and felt inspired to resurrect it. 

Williams’ journey to continuing the Junior Firebirds began in the fall of his sophomore year, when he sustained an injury while playing soccer and, thus, attended physical therapy at BucksFit Richboro. His therapist had two children on the spectrum who participated, and he told Williams all about their positive experience. 

“It was this great program for about an hour on Sunday mornings where kids would come, play basketball, they’d shoot around. They had a great time,” said Williams. “I was like, ‘All right, this is something I can start.’ So I brought it up to an administrator in my school and they were like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ So that’s how it basically got started.” 

According to Williams, many who attended Junior Firebirds before its hiatus jumped at the chance to return once he got it up and running once again. 

“I found the old emailing list and I would say, probably 60 to 70 percent of our kids that currently go were some of the original that went to John’s camp,” he said.  

From 9 to 10 a.m. each Sunday morning, they partake in about 10 minutes of stretching followed by a regular basketball practice, giving them a taste of what it’s like to be a high school athlete. On average, about 40 kids, teens and adults show up, and are broken up into several stations to hone different skills, such as shooting, passing and dribbling. Additionally, for anyone who isn’t a fan of such structure, two big baskets are set up for them to shoot on their own. 

“That’ll go for 40 minutes and then the last five minutes, all the kids gather under one basket, the counselors on each side, and they shoot one basket, grab a pretzel and water, and then head home,” said Williams. 

Initially, the Junior Firebirds started as a kids-only program. However, Williams began receiving an influx of emails from the parents of 20-, 30- and 40-something-year-olds on the spectrum, who they felt would benefit. It was at that point that Williams decided it should be for all ages. 

“It’s really open to everybody. And it’s good for them to just get out and meet other kids like them,” he said. “I can’t count the times that I had parents come up and thank us for our work. It takes a load off the parents for the very hyperactive kids. They can sit and watch their kids with a smile on their faces. It truly makes it all worth it.”

Williams stressed that there are many key players aside from himself who help make the Junior Firebirds a success. Each session, nearly 30 Holy Ghost Prep students are on hand volunteering and helping attendees to have the best time possible.

“We usually do a buddy-up system, where one of our guys will buddy up with a kid and will hang out with them the whole time, go wherever they want, follow them around the stations, and that’s really helpful for the kids,” said Williams. “We really have a good group of guys that come every week and help.” 

All hands on deck: Dozens of Holy Ghost Prep students volunteer each week at the Junior Firebirds. Source: Joanne Williams

As Williams prepares for life beyond Holy Ghost Prep, with plans for next year including studying business at Penn State and joining its Naval ROTC program to eventually become a naval officer, he’s making sure that the Junior Firebirds live on, even after he graduates. 

“Last year, I tried to look for a freshman, so he can maybe have it for two years, and I found a really great guy. He came every single time last year, has come every time this year. His parents are now involved. His name is Bobby Wimsey. He’s a current sophomore at Holy Ghost Prep,” said Williams. “And I like to say, it’s a Bobby W. passing it off to a Bobby W., so that makes it nice and easy for them to understand and it makes the process a little easier. He’s so active on campus and I couldn’t have thought of a better man to take it over. The biggest thing for me is that it just keeps going.”

While the work of Williams and his fellow Holy Ghost Prep volunteers has positively impacted the area’s special needs community, having the chance to work with this population has changed these young men for the better, as well. Thanks to the many hours spent with attendees, they’re able to understand those with developmental struggles just a little bit better, and can help break societal stigmas surrounding these individuals. 

“The stigma is, people kind of back away from these behaviors. When they see maybe a kid who’s screaming in public or a kid who is, in a way, out of control, they don’t wanna handle it. They turn a blind eye and let the kids handle themselves. We’ve had many instances of kids maybe lashing out in our clinic, but our Holy Ghost Prep kids are there to help them,” he said. “One of my friends Zach, he was talking about the Junior Firebirds and he said one of the best things about it is how comfortable these kids became with him. They see him every week, they recognize his face, they feel safe around him and the feeling is mutual.”

Last Sunday was the final weekend for this season’s Junior Firebirds, with attendees receiving a T-shirt and partaking in a group photo. It was a bittersweet hour for Williams, but he isn’t straying too far.

“Hopefully, I’ll be able to come back on a weekend, maybe two weekends, and visit the kids,” he said. “I hope that the feeling is mutual, that maybe they’ll miss me as well and they recognize my face as much as I recognize them.” 

For those interested in learning more about the Junior Firebirds, contact Williams directly at rwilliams@holyghostprep.org.

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com

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