Love of hockey spurs Bar Mitzvah ‘gift’ for special needs children

Isaiah Granet (green shirt) has helped make children's dreams come true with his Mitzvah project.

As part of his Bar Mitzvah in March 2013, Isaiah Granet dedicated his service project to one of his passions. That fact alone is not necessarily remarkable — many soon-to-be-teens complete a Mitzvah project as part of their Jewish coming of age celebration — but what Granet did with his obligation to serve most certainly is, and continues to change lives to this day.

Not content to settle for a single day or weekend of benevolence to mark off a box on a checklist, the San Diego youth hockey player turned to his favorite sport for inspiration. Now, two years later, the San Diego Chill ice hockey team teaches the game to more than two dozen special needs children each week, helping them learn the sport and gain acceptance one faceoff at a time.

"I’ve played hockey almost all my life and it’s something I’m really passionate about," the soon-to-be 15-year-old Granet told FOX Sports in a phone interview Sunday. "So I decided that instead of doing a kind of one-time project, I wanted to do something that would actually change my community and help make a real difference."

"I looked around and I found out that there was a national program called the American Special Hockey Association, and that they help kids with developmental disabilities play ice hockey. Naturally, I looked for a program near me to volunteer with, and I found that there were none, so I decided to start one myself instead."

Of course, getting the Chill on the ice was easier said than done, noble as Granet’s intentions may have been.

First, Granet needed to find a rink for the team to practice in. He eventually convinced Joe Polonsky, owner of UTC Ice Sports Center in San Diego, to let the team use a quarter of his rink for 30 minutes every Saturday at no charge — along with free use of skates, sticks and helmets.

Granet also needed the Chill to become recognized as a 501(c)(3) so the program could legally receive the tax-free donations that help keep the organization afloat. Obviously, Granet could neither do that work himself nor pay to have someone else do it, but the San Diego office of the Paul Hastings law firm stepped in and assisted on that front, providing pro bono service to Granet to help his dream become a reality by having his team recognized as a charity.

Once he had all of the logistics taken care of, Granet just had to get players on the ice.

A teaching moment.

In order to do that, Granet and his mom, Lisa, distributed fliers to special needs schools around the area. While the early returns were disappointing — only two children showed up to the team’s first practice in May 2013 — it was only a matter of months before Granet, his teammates and other teenage volunteers from other rinks in the community were helping 25 to 30 kids learn to skate and play hockey every Saturday afternoon.

"At first I didn’t really have much of a vision," Granet said. "I didn’t really know what other programs looked like and I didn’t know how I was going to carry this out. I had kind of a picture of a team and a coach, and I kind of thought of what a regular hockey practice would look like and set out with that vision. But over the course of (the last two years), it’s changed immensely and become something really amazing, and it’s truly impressive to see."

For Granet, the choice to focus specifically on helping kids with developmental disabilities wasn’t based on any particular connection to the cause. It was largely motivated by his desire to meet a need that wasn’t previously being satisfied and reach out to a segment of the population that was being overlooked.

"I love working with kids, for starters," Granet said. "I saw that everywhere I looked there were opportunities for people that had physical disabilities, and really, with developmental disabilities, there were opportunities for ages 1 to 7. But then basically up until you turn 18, there weren’t really opportunities to play sports.

"As little kids, they have a lot of opportunities because everyone wants to help out. Then as adults, the opportunities open up even more, but there’s this gap in their teenage years. I saw that gap and really wanted to do something about it and change my community and help those kids, so I started this program."

As little kids, they have a lot of opportunities because everyone wants to help out, and then as adults, the opportunities open up even more, but there’s this gap in their teenage years, and I saw that gap and really wanted to do something about it …

Isaiah Granet

Not surprisingly, many have a hard time believing that a program of this nature could possibly be organized and run by a kid who’s not much older than a lot of the players he’s coaching. The Chill targets children ages 7 to 13, though Granet says kids are welcome to play for as long as they want to be a part of the team. Because of Granet’s age, there have been more than a few cases of mistaken identity by parents bringing their kids to the rink for the first time.

"Every time someone new comes to our program, we always get the same reaction," Granet said. "They walk in and they go up to my mom or my dad, who usually come to help work everything, and they go, ‘Hi, are you Isaiah?’

"They are shocked to realize that this program is being run by a 14-year-old, and a lot of them have problems trusting me in the beginning, which is understandable. But over time, parents have become great with our program and they trust us on the ice.

"I’ve seen parents cry, and it’s amazing to see that they think this is such a big deal."

Ice time proves nice time.

Typically, a Chill practice is held on Saturday afternoons from 12:45 to 1:15. But it’s not uncommon for players and volunteers to show up early to get ready and sometimes stay late to keep teaching and learning, even after the team has had to leave the ice.

The first goal, Granet says, is always to teach beginners how to skate, and only then do coaches move on to more specialized one-on-one drills. Earlier this year, some members of the Chill even traveled up to Valencia, Calif., to participate in the UCT Winter Hockey Festival, where the Chill were the only team made up entirely of kids.

"To be able to see that I have made a difference in my community and that I’ve been able to help the people around me is just amazing," Granet said. "I can’t even — I never thought my program would be able to go this far and be able to change that many lives. All the other coaches feel the same way.

"It’s been a really amazing experience not only for me, but for all the people who help out, and all the parents. We’ve truly completed almost all of our goals and we’re continuing to be a team. We’ve also managed to create somewhat of a support community with the parents, and we’ve given teammates to kids that didn’t have opportunities to make friends.

"When I see their smiles, it really makes all of the work worth it."

We’re helping to change how people see kids with special needs and we’re changing how people avoid people with special needs.

Isaiah Granet.

While the program’s broader focus is on hockey, Granet says it’s really about so much more than that.

"We’re helping to change how people see kids with special needs and we’re changing how people avoid people with special needs," Granet said. "That’s also part of the program — that we want to change perceptions of special needs kids throughout our community.

"Kids on my (youth) team now understand. Instead of stereotyping it or turning a blind eye, they understand these kids and they see that they’re really not that different from us.

"We’ve changed the community in that way, and it’s pretty cool, because now when we’re in the locker room, we talk about the kids, too. It’s a part of our lives like it’s a part of their lives, and that’s really amazing."

Needless to say, the experience has been rewarding for Granet’s parents, as well.

"As a parent, you put your head down and you do your best and you hope that you’ve instilled proper ethics in your kids. But then you see something like this and your breath is taken away," Granet’s dad, David, told FOX Sports.

"Isaiah set it up to help these kids with Down syndrome, Williams syndrome, autism, all these developmental disabilities. But I think that the teenage coaches and all of the families involved have been changed as much as the special needs kids they were trying to help. And I think that’s a permanent change of who they are, so it’s helping in a way that no one expected or realized when it started.

We’re blown away by our teenage son …

David Granet

"And that’s been part of the amazing thing to see."

Unfortunately, despite all of the Chill’s success, the challenge now will be finding a way to keep the program running. Since the practices run right in the middle of the busiest day of the week at the rink, UTC Ice had to begin charging Granet $200 per week to use the ice. Granet has also made it a priority to purchase new helmets and a gear kit for each player in the program.

Much of that has been paid for by a $4,200 grant that Granet received from USA Hockey as well as a few other donations, but the grant won’t pay the bills forever. More money will be required in order to keep the program afloat, especially if Granet wants to be able to keep the program totally free for the players.

"It’s a real struggle for us to fund it because it’s a lot of money," Isaiah Granet said. "We’ve been able to secure some grants, and the USA Hockey grant has been supporting us for about three or four months now. But it’s important to us that no child ever pays to play.

"We never want to charge anyone to participate. We help out all ends of the spectrum, all kinds of kids, and it’s important to us that everyone can be a part of it."

But if Granet has made anything clear over the last couple years, it’s that he’ll find a way to make it happen.

"None of the kids could skate at the beginning of the program, and now everyone skates," Granet said. "We used to push all the kids around the ice on chairs to get a feel for it. Now none of the kids are on chairs and every kid that comes into our program learns how to skate with one-on-one coaching. Every kid has a stick in their hands and every kid can play hockey on a sufficient level."

"We’re blown away by our teenage son, and I don’t think you can give without getting," David Granet added. "When you give, you get changed by it. I think that’s what everyone who is involved in the program has learned. To see that, with teenage boys and girls learning that, that’s incredible. These are people who have been absolutely committed to making a difference, and to have that commitment this early, it’s kind of amazing."

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com. To donate used hockey gear or money to the San Diego Chill hockey program, visit the team’s website here.