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Students Spread ‘Love of the Game’ with Community

Former DifferenceMaker Project Proves a Winner for People with Developmental Disabilities

Love of the Game President Allyson Dillon dances with Jocelyn McCormack Photo by Ed Brennen
Love of the Game President Allyson Dillon teaches floor hockey participant Jocelyn McCormack of Chelmsford some dance moves during the club's recent clinic at the Campus Recreation Complex tennis courts.

By Ed Brennen

Charlie Connolly, a junior mechanical engineering major from Braintree, is trying to teach Jacob Wilson how to shoot and score in floor hockey. But at the moment, Wilson is more interested in talking about electronics like computers, phones, cameras and alarm clocks.

“He’s been giving me advice on my next computer,” a grinning Connolly says as he and Wilson pass a small rubber ball back and forth at the Campus Recreation Complex tennis courts, where the student organization Love of the Game is holding its first sports clinic of the year for people with developmental disabilities. “We’re talking about upgrading from Windows Vista to Windows 10.”

Wilson, a 24-year-old from Wilmington who lives in a group home, has never played floor hockey before, but he appears to be a natural.

“Have you seen how many times I was hitting the ball in the net?” he says confidently. “It’s easy.”

“You make it look easy!” says Connolly, the club’s community outreach chair and social media manager. “You haven’t missed a shot today. You’re killing it!”

At the edge of the court, Wilson’s mom Niki looks on with a smile.
Charlie Connolly talks to Jacob Wilson during the clinic Photo by Ed Brennen
Love of the Game member Charlie Connolly talks with floor hockey clinic participant Jacob Wilson of Wilmington.

“He really looks forward to coming here,” she says. “Even if he doesn’t play a sport, it’s somebody to talk to and communicate with. Somebody to listen to him and pay attention.

“And Charlie is amazing. He’s really into it, talking to Jake and engaging him.”

It’s exactly the kind of interaction that Love of the Game’s founders – Daniel Schmith ’19, Rachel Silk ’17 and Jessica Dion ’16 – were hoping for when they created the organization in 2015 through the Rist DifferenceMaker Institute.

Since winning the $4,000 first prize in the DifferenceMaker’s Significant Social Impact category five years ago, Love of the Game has become an official student club funded by Student Activities and Leadership. Several times a year it holds clinics on sports such as basketball, soccer, softball and field hockey, inviting athletes from the university’s Division I and club teams to volunteer a few hours of their time to work with participants.

“It’s cool that other students want to keep pushing it along,” says Schmith, who earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration (with a concentration in marketing) last spring and now works as a software solutions consultant at 360factors Inc. in Austin, Texas. “I think it really speaks to the value of it and how meaningful it is.”
“I love seeing him be so independent. Typically, I don’t get to see him interact like this without me being with him.” -Karen Bernier on son Drew

As Drew Bernier, a high school freshman from Dracut, arrives at the floor hockey clinic on the overcast Sunday afternoon, he’s warmly greeted by Allyson Dillon, a junior exercise physiology major from Braintree who is serving as Love of the Game’s president this year.

“Want to play?” Dillon asks Bernier as she helps him choose a floor hockey stick.

Bernier, who is nonverbal and on the autism spectrum, doesn’t hesitate to join in. Decked out in a Tom Brady jersey, he warms up with the group by doing jumping jacks, stretching and jogging a lap around the court. Then it’s time for drills like weaving the ball around cones and taking slap shots at the net.

“I love seeing him be so independent,” says Bernier’s mom, Karen. “Typically, I don’t get to see him interact like this without me being with him. It’s just nice to see him follow directions. He does have some words, but to those who don’t know him, they probably wouldn’t understand him. It seems like these students are doing a great job understanding him.”

Dillon, who is minoring in disability studies, hopes to grow Love of the Game this year through fundraising, community outreach and volunteer opportunities beyond the clinics. There are already two more events lined up this fall: a basketball clinic on Nov. 24 and a soccer clinic on Dec. 8.
Jocelyn McCormack maneuvers the ball during the clinic Photo by Ed Brennen
Jocelyn McCormack of Chelmsford works on her stick skills during the recent Love of the Game floor hockey clinic.

The club, which has about a dozen members and is advised by Psychology Prof. Ashleigh Hillier, partners with local schools and organizations such as Best Buddies to draw participants. 

“I really enjoy being around this population of people and helping them. They’re all so energetic and happy,” Dillon says while managing the floor hockey clinic, which drew a half-dozen participants – most of them returners from previous sessions.

“Inclusion is such a huge thing, especially within sports,” adds Dillon, a member of the women’s club soccer team. “Typically, athletics is an area where a line is drawn. But this is a way we can all come together and enjoy different sports.”

Graduate student Matt Short of Newburyport, who served as Love of the Game’s president last year while completing his undergraduate degree in physical therapy, is happy to see the club’s membership expanding to North Campus majors like engineering and business.

“That’s just what you want to see,” says Short, who volunteered with the Special Olympics while in high school and jumped at the chance to join Love of the Game as a freshman.
Drew Bernier dances with Jeanna Francis and Allyson Dillon Photo by Ed Brennen
Drew Bernier of Dracut learns some dance steps from Love of the Game members Jeanna Francis, left, and Allyson Dillon.

“There’s really nothing better than getting to interact with this amazing population of people. It’s awesome,” Short says in between high-fives with participants. “They get to feel the energy of the campus and participate in a college sports type of experience. It’s a really neat thing.”

Midway through the two-hour clinic comes everyone’s favorite part of the day: the halftime dance party. As the ’90s dance tune “Macarena” plays over speakers from a student’s phone, the guests show off their moves.

“I didn’t know you could do that!” Karen Bernier beams while watching Drew cut loose. “He won’t dance at home with me.”

“The dance parties are the best. Jake really gets into it,” adds Niki Wilson, who for the past 15 years has run a similar program to Love of the Game in Wilmington called Beyond TOPS.

“It’s nice to have that buddy concept – someone that’s willing to get up in the morning on a weekend and give that time and effort back to children who can appreciate it,” she says. “Jake’s older than some of these kids, but he fits in. It’s so nice to have programs like this.”