A basketball camp at the North Hall Community Center this week helped kids with special needs find confidence through sports, and the program’s founder hopes to expand the camp next year.
Mike Simmel, a New Jersey native, founded Bounce Out the Stigma and travels around the country for the basketball camps. The Gainesville camp, which is in its fourth year, was the first time the program came to Georgia. About 25 players participated this year.
“We had a great time coming down here the first year, and it just grew and grew and grew,” Simmel said. “We’ve been here now four years, and the program has just taken on a life of its own.”
Simmel said he also is considering hosting one-day events throughout the year.
The goal of the camp is to show kids that their disabilities don’t have to be limitations, he said.
“We want to show these kids through basketball that with self-empowerment and confidence, they can do anything they want to do as long as they put their mind and heart to it,” he said.
And their future goals don’t necessarily have to include sports.
“It could be something in their life like a school subject, it could be being the best brother or sister they can be, daughter or son they can be, whatever it is, just doing chores around their house,” Simmel said. “… We want these kids to be the best they can be and go through life saying ‘yes, I can.’”
Jessica Holloway’s son has been attending the camp for four years, and she has stepped up to assist Simmel in running the camp. She said her 10-year-old son, Noah, is noticeably more confident.
“I can tell he’s getting stronger with his muscles. It’s helping his low muscle tone,” Holloway said. “It’s just amazing how much this camp has really helped. He was shy, and now he’s coming out of his shell.”
Kelli Grogan, another parent who has been volunteering for four years, said Simmel values the players’ potential and teaches them not to give up.
“Mike sees great capabilities in these kids, not disabilities,” Grogan said. “The basketball drills he teaches are many of the same drills they teach high school, college and even pro teams.”
Simmel is teaching from experience. He has had epilepsy since he was 2 years old.
“I used to have seizures every day. I wore a helmet,” he said. “I couldn’t do a jumping jack at one point in my life.”
Basketball became his passion.
“My dad gave me a basketball. I dribbled the ball everywhere I went and got better. … When I was 12, I was dribbling two basketballs and doing tricks. It just took off,” he said.
He went about a decade without having a seizure, until he was 16 and had a seizure at a basketball camp. Simmel was asked not to return to the camp, and while his parents fought to keep him there, he remembers what it felt like to feel out of place.
“I always kept in the back of my mind that I wanted to help kids in the same situation as me,” he said.
He eventually went on to spend 13 years with the Harlem Wizards, an entertainment basketball team.
Simmel was inspired to start Bounce Out the Stigma after a conversation with his father in 2005.
The Gainesville camp is sponsored by Cantrell, a local poultry and food processing equipment company.
Simmel said he appreciates the community’s support from sponsors and volunteers.
Holloway said that the end of the five-day camp is bittersweet every year, as players are recognized for their achievements but don’t want to say goodbye.
“On Fridays when we have ceremonies, these kids are crying because they’re happy and they don’t want to leave and they’re getting awards,” she said. “They hate to see the camp end.”
To get involved, go to bounceoutthestigma.org or find the program on social media.