When Anderson Jones was a little kid, his after-school hours looked a lot different than they do now. He and the other students with disabilities at Bethesda Elementary School were dismissed about 15 minutes before the “regular” general-education students so their paraeducators could get them safely onto their designated special-education buses before the final bell rang. Most afternoons, Anderson tagged along as his mom, Kirsten Jones, took his sister to her array of sports practices.
But shortly after Anderson started sixth grade at Bethesda’s Westland Middle School, Jones learned about a new
after-school program in the county that offered soccer and basketball classes to elementary- and middle-schoolers with disabilities. And the program promised something she’d never heard of: one-on-one peer buddies for each player. The peer buddies would be general-education students around the same age who would run after loose balls and make sure their buddies didn’t wander off. And, hopefully, become a friend.
Jones signed up Anderson right away.
Five years later, on a soccer field outside Bethesda Elementary, Anderson, now 17, is deftly maneuvering a soccer ball through a throng of players. It’s a crisp October day, and Anderson pauses about 20 feet from the goal, methodically sets up the perfect shot, and kicks the ball fast and straight into the net.
When he raises his arms into a victory sign, nearly everyone on the field charges over to give him a high-five, even the players he’s competing against. A moment later, a player on the other team scores, and Anderson and others race over to offer him a high-five, too.
“Let’s remember to pass the ball more!” the coach yells out, but it’s clear that coordinating a winning strategy isn’t the players’ priority.
Like Anderson, many of his fellow players have Down syndrome. Others have autism spectrum disorder, are nonverbal, or have other intellectual or developmental disabilities. One needs help walking. They range from kindergarteners through high schoolers, though it seems the age and size distinctions hardly matter when they are on the field.
The game they are playing is part of Open Door Sports (ODS), a local nonprofit founded in 2016 to offer after-school sports programs for students in the county with physical, emotional or intellectual disabilities. ODS currently runs 11 soccer and basketball programs throughout the school year, and soccer and bocce programs during the summer. About 10% of ODS’s players use wheelchairs or walkers.
The brainchild of a Bethesda mom with a disabled daughter, ODS has served more than 1,100 disabled children and teenagers in Montgomery County since its inception. And beginning with its fall 2021 season, ODS programs are free to all participants, thanks mostly to an increase in donations and grants. Some of its programs, particularly at schools in lower-income parts of the county, have more than four times as many applicants as available spots.
On this day, all 10 players and 15 peer buddies are piled into the scrum, including Anderson and his peer buddy, Jimmy Barnard. Anderson and Jimmy have been friends since elementary school and became peer buddies in seventh grade, when Jimmy signed on to volunteer with ODS. Anderson, Jimmy says, “has always been the happiest person I know.”
Now juniors at different schools—Anderson at Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School and Jimmy at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High—they are still paired one afternoon a week during ODS sessions at Bethesda Elementary, and sometimes they get together for dinner and a movie on weekends.
“[Anderson’s] confidence has really increased throughout the years. He used to try to score the goal as much as everyone else,” Jimmy, 16, says. “But now he always says, ‘Nah, I want the younger kids to get a goal.’ ” Anderson says he got the idea of passing to the little kids from watching the peer buddies do it.
Anderson considers himself “the MVP of ODS,” he says with a smile. Since joining during the program’s 2017 fall season, he hasn’t missed a session—even during the pandemic. (The program was suspended for the spring 2020 session but started back up in time for the summer session, and continued its programming even as the schools were remote.)
“He does fancy himself a bit of an ODS celebrity,” says Jones, who is usually there to cheer on her son from the sidelines. Some sessions, he plays four days a week.
“We could be out, like in downtown Bethesda, and people come up and say hi to him, and I’m like, ‘Who is that, Anderson?’ ” Jones says. “And he says, ‘It’s a friend from ODS.’ ”
The idea for ODS was sparked 13 years ago, when Bethesda’s Sarah Albus was on a family ski trip to Pennsylvania. She, husband Mark and three of their daughters were being fitted for their rental equipment when their fourth daughter, Hannah, tugged on her arm to ask a simple question: “Where are my skis, Mama?”
Albus didn’t know how to answer.
Hannah and her twin sister, Libby, were born nearly four months premature. They spent their first 12 weeks of life in the neonatal intensive care unit at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. After three months, Libby was thriving and released. But Hannah had suffered a massive brain hemorrhage and remained in the NICU for more than three additional months.
By the time she was discharged, Hannah had survived six brain surgeries, a heart surgery and several life-threatening infections. At 18 months, she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. She didn’t take her first independent steps until she was 3. Now 18, she uses a walker in school and a strollerlike wheelchair on family outings.
Hannah and Libby were 5 when their parents took them and their two older sisters, Grace and Katherine, on the ski trip. Albus had assumed Hannah wouldn’t mind sitting in the lodge while her sisters took a lesson. Sarah and Mark planned to take turns keeping Hannah company and heading up the mountain with her sisters.
But when Hannah asked about skis of her own, Albus knew she had misjudged the situation. “I realized I had failed her,” Albus says. She promised her daughter that “moving forward, I would work to find fun activities for her to participate in, just as her sisters did.”
Albus, 49, knows the benefits of team sports. A soccer star at Vanderbilt University in the early 1990s, Albus helped her team win two Southeastern Conference championships and earned All-SEC and All-Academic SEC honors. In 1993 and 1994, while still in college, she played on the B team of the U.S. national soccer team. In scrimmages, her role was to guard star Mia Hamm, she says.
After she and her family returned from the ski trip, Albus signed up Hannah for a flurry of extracurriculars: Special Olympics, horseback riding, Maryland Youth Ballet. Hannah’s weekends were full of excitement, but her after-school hours were still unoccupied. She would take the bus home from school and wait for her sisters to return hours later from their sports practices.
In 2014, when Hannah was 10, Albus quit her job as a social scientist for a trade association. Soon after, she met some recent American University graduates who had started the Player Progression Academy (PPA), a youth sports program in Washington, D.C. PPA was built around a holistic approach to youth sports rather than the fierce competitiveness of other local leagues, Albus says. She began working with the organization part time.
Once PPA’s founders met Hannah, they started thinking about adding programs for kids with disabilities, and Albus decided to take the lead. Under her model, the coaches and assistant coaches would have experience with children with disabilities. There would be a large pool of peer buddy volunteers, and the focus would be on after-school hours, when most kids go off to play team sports while many kids with disabilities sit at home, bored.
Most importantly, she wanted her enterprise to be a nonprofit, she says. (PPA is for-profit.) Having just spent $3,000 on a high-tech stroller wheelchair for Hannah, Albus was sensitive to the costs incurred by families of kids with disabilities. “You can’t charge $250, $300 for a session,” she says, because their expenses are already profound.
Once ODS was incorporated, Albus contacted Hannah’s alma mater, Flora M. Singer Elementary School in Silver Spring. She hoped to offer her new program in the spring of 2017 to kids in the school’s Learning Center, which has self-contained special-education classrooms as well as opportunities for immersion with nondisabled peers.
To Albus’ surprise, the principal agreed right away. Albus then contacted four more schools in the county, including Tilden Middle School in Rockville, where Hannah was a sixth grader at the time. All four schools signed on for the 2017 fall season. The program has grown to five public and three private schools in the county.
Most ODS programs are open to all children with disabilities, regardless of where they attend school. ODS also offers four programs a week at Sacred Heart School in Washington, D.C., for financially challenged kids of all developmental levels.
Though Albus runs most of ODS’s seven-week sessions herself with the help of an assistant coach, the organization now employs a handful of other coaches who lead a few of the sessions. In the spring of 2022, ODS introduced a six-week-long weekend program at Silver Spring’s Sligo Middle School called Game Day, for players ready for a higher level of competition. Anderson is a Game Day regular. “He likes that it’s fast-paced and lots of action,” Jones says.
The peer-buddy component has turned out to be one of Albus’ favorite parts of ODS. She’ll never forget the first time Hannah was invited to one peer buddy’s birthday party. “I bawled,” Albus says. “That was a thing I didn’t expect to be so powerful.”
These days, Hannah, a senior at Bethesda’s Walter Johnson High School, still participates in ODS. When she’s not on the field, she often accompanies her mom to sessions so she can cheer on the players. “It makes them feel good,” Hannah says.
On this fall afternoon, her two peer buddies stand on either side of her, holding her hands while she cautiously moves through the warmup drills and the agility course, complete with flexible low hurdles and hoops to hop through. Like many players, Hannah has a tough time jumping with both feet. “We try to get a bit of physical therapy in,” says Albus, who is known by all as Coach Sarah.
“Good try, Hannah Banana,” Albus says to her daughter during the next exercise, after Hannah’s slow, careful setup nearly earns her a goal. “Thanks, Mom,” her daughter replies as her peer buddies lead her back to the sideline, where the other participants and buddies wait patiently.
Each player will take a turn yelling “ball,” and an assistant coach will roll one over to them for a chance to score. The drills take up most of the hour, with the last 15 minutes reserved for playing a game.
It’s not just the players who benefit from ODS, but the peer buddies, too, Albus says: They earn the student-service-learning (SSL) hours that are required for graduation from Montgomery County public high schools, and, more importantly, develop empathy, understanding and friendships they otherwise wouldn’t get to make.
Anderson’s sister, who plays basketball year-round on an AAU travel team, is now in her second season as a basketball peer buddy with ODS. Finley, 12, says she’ll never forget when her buddy scored his first basket and everyone started to cheer. “I was really proud,” she says.
“We have peer buddies who come in nervous,” Albus adds, recalling a “sweet middle-schooler” who arrived on his first day with his hoodie up, his shoulders shrugged and his body language defensive. Don’t worry, Albus told him, you are just here to be their friend. It’s all about positivity. By the next session, she says, “He was holding his new peer buddy’s hand, because that’s what she needed. She would look for him every day.”
“The students that volunteer, they become a lot more comfortable with the kids with special needs,” says Anderson’s peer buddy Jimmy, who also serves as an assistant coach for ODS.
Sometimes, Jimmy adds, when a peer buddy and player go to the same school, their friendship goes with them. “It just takes down that barrier,” he says.
Journalist Amy Halpern has worked in print and television news and as the associate producer on an Emmy Award–winning documentary. She lives in Potomac.