“Airball, airball!” shouted Alyona Shushkovsky, a 31-year-old Philadelphia 76ers fan, as Indiana Pacers shooting guard Orlando Johnson readied for a free-throw attempt.
She didn’t get her wish and Johnson made the shot. Then, as the hometown Sixers — trailing by double digits in the second half — moved the ball down the court, Shushkovsky urged the team to “make us proud” and to “play with passion.”
The Wells Fargo Arena was far from full, and with the team falling to the Pacers 88-69, the sedate crowd didn’t have much to cheer about. But until the last minute or so, Shushkovsky’s group of 15 adults, who sat way up in section 215, never stopped rooting loudly for the home team.
They looked and sounded just like the other fans and, in many ways, that’s what they were. But Shushkovsky, who was born in the former Soviet Union, and the others contend with a range of learning and developmental disabilities. They are all clients of the Jewish Family and Children’s Services’ Center for Special Needs.
Feb. 6 marked the first time the Sixers organized a Special Needs Recognition Night. The work of several nonprofit groups, including JFCS, was recognized during a pre-game, on-court ceremony.
One JFCS client, Michael Ciomyk, and Sherrie Eisman, director of collaboration and partnership for JFCS' Center for Special Needs, stepped onto the hardwood to get a special plaque from the Sixers.
“It was all right,” Michael Ciomyk, a diehard sports fan, said about being on the court. But he later complained that he’d taken a night off from work at the ShopRite on Roosevelt Boulevard in Northeast Philadelphia in order to witness a losing effort, and a non-competitive game at that.
The JFCS Center for Special Needs offers counseling and other services to individuals with a range of intellectual and developmental disabilities, including learning disorders, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorders and Asperger’s Syndrome.
The clients traveled to the game from the Northeast and the Main Line by yellow school bus and were accompanied by two JFCS staff members. It was an activity of the Network, a JFCS affinity group that offers clients opportunities to socialize and experience different situations.
The 6-year-old group, with 60 members, offers outings to movies, museums and even Broadway shows in New York. Though the Network, JFCS also offers its members life skills workshops, such as how to handle stress.
Lisa Ney, a program manager for the Center for Special Needs who was on the trip, said that all of the participants are striving for greater self-sufficiency and that an aversion to social situations often presents a barrier to working and forming deeper relationships. She added that a lack of an ability to handle social situations is the perhaps the biggest obstacle toward holding a job for many of JFCS’ special needs clients.
“We have clients who are very isolated. They don’t have a lot of social groups to be part of,” said Ney. “It is very a very meaningful part of their lives that they can get together for good, educational outings. It is kind of a microcosm of life — having to deal with group dynamics, get to know people and have meaningful relationships.”
Nearly all of those who went to Sixers game were eager to talk about themselves, their interests — ranging from sports to movie to books — and the particular challenges they face. On the ride to the stadium, one participant cracked open The Agony and the Ecstacy, Irving Stone’s classic historical novel about Michelangelo. Some of the clients work, while others aren’t able to hold down a job. Some drive, while most rely on public transportation. A few live on their own but many live with their parents.
Virtually all the participants on the trip said they were grateful that the Sixers were recognizing groups that help individuals with special needs. Several participants said the team was doing something important by raise public awareness about the challenges faced by those with special needs.
Two members of the group, Lisa Feinberg, 46, and Martin Connolly, 45, have been dating since 1996 and have been engaged since 2006. Feinberg, who lives with her parents, said no wedding date has been set yet.
“These are nice people to hang out with and it is an excellent thing for me,” said Connolly, who became active in the group through his fiance.
Susan Einhorn, 50, said that Network events “gets me out. I live with a roommate and it gets me away from her. It does me a lot of good.”