Platt: Teaching kids that kindness is cool

Apr. 25, 2014 @ 12:42 PM

Brothers Matt and Zach Certner, as children, started an organization to provide activities for kids faced with autism and other challenges.

That was good. But it wasn’t good enough for them.

Parents complained that their special children, although grateful for the safe space and inclusive environment provided through the Certners’ program, didn’t get that same experience in school.

“I’d ask if the kids were excited to go back to school and they’d say, ‘No, we hate school,’” Zach Certner said. “Parents said they got bullied, ostracized, always left out. That always took me by surprise.”

A national study by the Interactive Autism Network found that children with autism spectrum disorders face high rates of bullying. In the study, 63 percent of 1,167 children with ASD, ages 6 to 15, reported bullying.

The Certners did a lot for their challenged friends.

But they decided they could do more.

“We needed to educate their peers,” Zach said. “We wanted to get them to incorporate special-needs kids and make sure they feel accepted.”

So they expanded the goals of the Special Needs Athletic Programs nonprofit to include training other kids to be more sympathetic and inclusive so they could pass it on as mentors. Or, as the Certners put it: “Kids helping kids.”

During SNAP training, teens get new perspectives on tasks they take for granted, like trying to write their name by looking at the paper’s reflection in a mirror or simulating cerebral palsy by making them play catch while wearing vision-distorting goggles and standing on balance disks.

“Sometimes the kids in training get frustrated and say, ‘I quit,” Zach said. “And we tell them the special-needs kids can’t quit. They need to deal with this, 24/7. When they realize that, the hardships these kids go through and with bullying on top of that, it really opens their eyes to the difficulties.”

Matt agreed: “By far, the best way is to have peers come back and tell other kids it’s cool to be kind.”

SNAP got its start in Morristown, New Jersey, where the Certners grew up. It has since spread to New York, New Hampshire, Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin.

It’ll probably come to Durham, if Zach has his way.

Matt attended Duke University and graduated last year. He now works as a consultant for IBM. Zach, 17, is graduating from high school and will move in as a Duke freshman in August.

“I’d love to do something with the schools down there,” Zach said. “We’ll see how my first year goes as I get into my classes.”

Meanwhile, the Certners are running an Indiegogo campaign to raise $60,000 to develop e-learning versions of their SNAP curriculum.

Matt said they’re finalizing a script for the project, which will put children through a two-day course using cartoon characters to act out scenarios. They hope to launch in September.

“We just hope we can spread this,” Matt said. “None of us are on salary. We love that everything we receive goes straight to kids.”

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For more about their nonprofit program, visit snapclinics.org. To contribute to their Indiegogo campaign, visit tinyurl.com/l3qu5nm.

Wes Platt can be reached at wplatt@heraldsun.com or 919-419-6684. Follow on Twitter at @HS_WesPlatt. Connect on Facebook at facebook.com/wesplattheraldsun.