Mike Simmel’s passion for helping children with disabilities began when he was just a kid himself.
After suffering a seizure at a basketball camp when he was 16, Simmel — who has dealt with epilepsy since he was only two years old — was asked to leave the camp two days early to keep the program clear of any legal liability. And while his dad eventually talked the camp director into letting him finish the week out, Simmel said he heard plenty of taunts from his peers because of the incident, making him feel isolated in the days to follow.
“I said to myself then, if I was ever in the position to help kids, I was going to do it,” he said.
When he got the chance, Simmel made good on his promise.
In 2005, the now 41-year-old from Allendale, New Jersey, started his Bounce Out the Stigma basketball camp, a program that caters to youths dealing with any manner of developmental disabilities — ranging from autism and autism spectrum disorders to epilepsy and diabetes. The camp will make its yearly stop in Gainesville from June 24 to June 28 at the North Hall Rec Center.
“When we created the program, I liked to call it a program for middle of the road kids,” Simmel said. “Kids who don’t feel comfortable going to a camp that’s maybe a very much special needs program, but kids who also don’t feel comfortable going to a camp that’s a highly skilled camp. For kids who kind of are middle of the road, where maybe if they work here, maybe they could go to a mainstream program in a little bit.”
The program focuses on improving the confidence of its participants through basketball. Simmel hopes the sport can provide the same kind of hope for this generation of kids as it did for him.
“It’s just awesome that we can provide a hope mechanism for so many kids and empower so many kids using the game of basketball,” he said. “Show them that some of you kids may not be basketball players when you grow up, but you’re going to use basketball to empower you to be whatever it is you want to be.”
The camp started at one location in New Jersey, but expanded over the years thanks to donations and sponsorships from companies around the country. The Gainesville stop — which Simmel has been making for four years now — is funded largely by Cantrell.
Without the Gainesville-based poultry and food processing equipment company and others like it, the Bounce Out the Stigma camps would not be possible, according to Simmel.
“When you see people like that, it just restores your faith in humanity,” he said. “It shows there are good people out there.”
At the Gainesville location in particular, Simmel said he is never lacking for volunteers and supportive families willing to help out and make things run smoothly.
“The South is a welcoming place,” he said.
Simmel’s career has always been focused on making kids smile.
After playing college ball at the Hun School of Princeton and SUNY Purchase, he spent 13 years playing for the Harlem Wizards — an entertainment-based basketball team similar to the Harlem Globetrotters. Seeing the excited faces of the children in the crowd was always a highlight for Simmel while he was with the team.
These days, he’s focused on giving his campers skills that will keep them smiling for the rest of their lives.
“You see the glow in these kids’ eyes and just how they’ve grown from five days,” he said. “... When you see development like that, it makes the job worthwhile. You can’t put a price tag on it. You can’t put anything on that except just it makes the job worthwhile.”