The sound of basketballs echoing off the gymnasium floor fills the halls of Great Neck North Middle School long after the bells have given their final ring for the weekend.

Each Friday at 5:45 p.m., a group of high school volunteers, committed coaches, and special needs athletes come together to form what is known as the Great Neck Spirits. Operating for more than 23 years, the Spirits have become an integral part of the broader community, providing a fun support system for athletes with disabilities and their families. One athlete in particular, Alex Smooha, has been profoundly affected by his three years with this tight-knit basketball team.

“You get to meet new friends that you really enjoy, you get to spend time with them,” Smooha said with a grin.

He plans to use the skills he gained in the Great Neck Spirits to spend his upcoming summer working at John. F Kennedy camp as a counselor.

“It’s been incredible to watch Alex’s transformation,” Coach Jackie Mazur said of Smooha’s personal growth. “When he first came he stayed by his sister’s side and rarely ventured to be with others. But over time, his comfort and confidence has grown.”

For parents of children with developmental disabilities, day to day life can come with unexpected challenges.

“Some of the challenges have been Ross’s difficult behaviors, his frustration caused by his limited language, his lack of sleep and his need for constant care and attention,” said the parent of one of Alex’s fellow teammates, Laurie Rubin-Haber. “However, the rewards are numerous – particularly the incredibly caring people who have come into our lives because of Ross.”

Laurie Rubin-Haber, a recently published author, has become a champion for the autism community, using both her struggles and triumphs as a mother to write Raising Ross, a vivid and inspiring account of her experiences. With an entire section of the book is dedicated to the Great Neck Spirits and other supportive organizations.

“The coaches of the Great Neck Spirits special needs basketball program are remarkable people who truly care about the athletes,” said Rubin-Haber. “They are an example of the “Angels in Our Midst” in my book who have played an important role in raising Ross.”

By creating a bridge between the youth and developmentally disabled communities, the Spirits have aided in increasing awareness towards our special needs population on Long Island.

“Autism is no longer the fearful specter looming in the shadows,” she wrote in Raising Ross. “I am happy to say, around my neck, I wear a symbolic puzzle piece to remind me where Ross started and how far he has come, in much the same way that views on autism have evolved since his first diagnosis.”

With another successful basketball season concluding, the Great Neck Spirits have continued to bring people together, increase awareness, and most importantly facilitate the growth of its athletes and volunteers.

For more information or to get involved with the Great Neck Spirits, contact Alan Someck at asomeck@gmail.com or visit greatneckspirits.wordpress.com

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