The three boys’ heads nearly reached Ravens Linebacker C.J. Mosley’s elbow, and their eager faces equaled the size of one of his biceps. But, basking in the glow of Mosley’s focused attention, the boys felt anything but small.
“He signed my football!” enthuses purple-clad Patapsco Middle School student Zach Valentine, who attended a Ravens practice with his mom, Stacy Valentine, and his older sister and brother.
Valentine was invited to the team’s sprawling Under Armour Performance Center in Owings Mills through Team Up For 1, a foundation that connects kids with challenges with college and high school sports teams.
“We Can’t Get Kids Quick Enough”
To join a team, kids can face “any challenge under the sun,” says Charlie Levine, Team Up For 1 founder. “Cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, Down Syndrome, kids with cancer, autism, chronic illness. We’ll take anybody.”
“If your kid loves a sport,” Levine says, “there’s a place for everybody. Every college you can think of in the area, they’ve all adopted kids. High schools are adopting now, too.” Levine says the variety of teams ranges from football and basketball to cheerleading and dance.
“We have a wait list of teams that want to adopt,” says Levine. “We can’t get kids quick enough.”
You don’t have to be an athlete to join, he says. “No participation necessary. They can go to practices and games, and cheer. Some of the kids have jobs with the teams. Some kids travel with the teams. Teams have birthday parties for the kids or show up at their birthday parties,” he says.
Once a child is matched with a team, the team welcomes them with an MVP ceremony. “That’s our adoption ceremony,” Levine says. “We get a big sheet cake with the kid’s name and school’s name on it. We invite friends, family, administrators. They become an official part of the team.”
Teams commit for a minimum of two years. Generally, the foundation works with kids between 5 and 18 years old, but “if they’re a little younger we’ll find a team for them anyway,” Levine says. “They’ll grow into it.”
Applicants “pick the teams they like. We take it from there,” Levine explains.
“We match them with a high school or college team, and we make sure they’re within a half hour of where people live, so there can be ongoing interaction. That’s the main thing.”
Nobody, however, gets matched up with the Baltimore Orioles and Baltimore Ravens “because everybody wants the Ravens and Orioles,” Levine says. “Everything we do with the Ravens and Orioles is a group event.”
Today’s practice is the third time Team Up For 1 has invited kids and their families to attend. Levine says Ravens Coach John Harbaugh is “very behind this. They’re very supportive and accommodating.”
Like a lot of events this past summer, stormy weather moved this practice into the cavernous indoor facility with the size and acoustics of an airplane hangar. Shouts, grunts, horns and yells from the turf field echo off the metal roof.
Mosley jogs over to visit the kids between every play, igniting a current of excitement among the group of around 60 kids and family members. Mosley smiles as he signs shirts and hats and kneels down to speak with a child who wanted to talk with him.
“This is our third time,” says Janice Wright, who attended with her 20-year-old son Matthew.
Matthew participates in the Team Up For 1 program and is paired with the Towson University Swim and Dive Team. Matthew, who is on the autism spectrum and has Angelman Syndrome “and a terrible case of cuteness,” says Wright, who adds that her son is “quite the accomplished athlete.”
Matthew has participated in two marathons, two triathlons and multiple half-marathons and is training for a century ride in the next six months. With Team Up For 1, Matthew also attends meets and cheers on the swimmers. The athletes return the favor when Matthew competes.
“The swim coach and some of the players have come out to see Matthew run,” Wright says. “They’re an incredible group of kids. The coaches are incredibly welcoming. I love it. They see Matthew’s value and they see his worth. It’s a huge deal for me.”
Patrick Grant says he was “actively seeking” support programs for his daughter Eden, now age five, when he “stumbled across” Team Up For 1.
Eden was adopted by the Towson University Women’s Basketball Team. Their coach, Diane Richardson, has two older children with autism. “She’s got connections to the community of individuals with disabilities. She’s connected to the Special Olympics,” Grant says. “We had no idea all of this was going to come with the match. It’s a great match for Eden, because it’s a connection to all these other resources.”
Grant, who played four years of varsity football in high school and ran track in college, hopes that Eden will be interested in sports when she gets older.
“This type of experience for someone like Eden is crucial,” he says. “Having a sense of belonging to the community, a sense of being included in a group or a team. A lot of kids with disabilities, that’s one of the biggest struggles — for the kids and the families. Because they’re, so to speak, a little bit different, they don’t always have the easiest time fitting in with typical peers.”
Part of the team
The concept of matching up kids with sports teams, says Levine, came to him from another organization out of New York that worked with kids who have brain cancer. “I spoke to them and said, ‘Hey, this is great, but we can spread this out to other kids?’ They wanted to stay focused on their area. We started Team Up For 1, because we wanted to work with all kinds of kids.
“I had a huddle with my family,” Levine says, and asked if they were on board with his idea. They enthusiastically were. Levine says his wife Robyn “came up with the name,” his 18-year-old daughter Maddie designed the logo, and his 16-year-old daughter Cameron is “our top volunteer.”
Cameron, who attends Roland Park Country School, will start a Team Up For 1 club at her school. Her lacrosse team already has adopted a 10-year-old girl named Amara.
“Amara came to a bunch of practices,” Cameron says. “We played some fun games that were easy for her to play. She’d come to a lot of our games and help cheer us on. She’d start the cheers, and get in our team huddles.” Amara really become part of the team and the team has become like big sisters to her, Cameron says.
And Amara isn’t the only beneficiary: “It’s brought the team together also,” Cameron says.