With the help of “Mighty Mike” Simmel, more than a dozen kids came together on Saturday to “Bounce Out the Stigma,” a basketball camp specifically designed to help empower children of all ages and abilities, especially those with special needs.
“We want to empower children and make them feel that you can do anything you want as long as you put your mind to it and believe in yourself,” said Simmel, who founded the program in 2005 while entertaining crowds professionally with dazzling ball-handling as a Harlem Wizard. “Our mantra is, ‘Limits will not define me, my will defines my limits.’”
“A limit is something that people place on you and it’s a challenge,” he said. “We want people to embrace those challenges and break the barriers.”
The free day-long clinic, funded by the Maryland Junior Chamber (Jaycees), focused on developing the children’s motor skills and hand-eye coordination in an uplifting atmosphere of encouragement and positive reinforcement. While children learn plenty of basketball skills, more importantly, they learn invaluable life skills and build self-confidence.
In one particular drill, after dribbling through a series of cones, campers took a jump shot a few feet away from the basket. Everyone cheered, clapped and praised as they shot, regardless of the outcome.
“It’s important to give a very nurturing atmosphere,” said volunteer Jared Albert. “Everyone’s clapping for everybody whether they make the shot or not ... It’s important that they see that success isn’t always making the shot, that success is just taking the shot.”
Simmel, who developed epilepsy at the age of 2, knows what it’s like to break through limitations, or perceived limitations, as he would say. Up until he was 7 years old, Simmel suffered from frequent seizures, at times had to wear a protective helmet, and was placed in a special education gym class due to his slow motor skills and development.
When he turned 7, his father gave him a basketball, and the rest is history. He practiced for several hours a day, he said, driven to exceed all expectations. At a basketball camp when he was 16 years old, he had a major epileptic seizure, the first one in 10 years, and was nearly removed from further participation.
“The camp wanted to send me home, but the parents wouldn’t let that happen,” Simmel said. “I always kept in the back of my head, if I was ever in a position to help kids down the road, I was going to do it.”
Simmel went on to be a three-year starter, captain and stand-out point guard at Don Bosco Preparatory High School in New Jersey, according to a website biography. As a postgraduate student at the Hun School of Princeton, he led the team with steals and assists. In college at SUNY Purchase, he was a two-year captain as well as assist and steals leader, all while still struggling with seizures.
From 2001 to 2014, Simmel played on the Harlem Wizards professional entertainment basketball team, and established the Bounce Out the Stigma program in 2005. Since then, he has garnered national media attention and been awarded several prestigious accolades. Most notable was his live performance on NBC’s “It’s Showtime at The Apollo,” and his 2009 TOYA award from the United States Jaycees organization, given annually to Ten Outstanding Young Americans.
“The camp is all about empowerment. Empowering the kids to overcome any obstacle they may face.” said Shannon O’Hara, project chairperson and board member of the Maryland Jaycees, whom Simmel credited with making the camp a reality. “This camp gives kids an opportunity to try something new out of their comfort zone, and get comfortable with getting outside of the box.”
“Every camp I’ve ever gone to, the kids are like phenomenally excited,” she continued. “They just love the camp, they love Mike. He’s fun and he can relate to the kids.”
This was the first time the camp has been hosted in Maryland through the Maryland Jaycees, and O’Hara hopes that in the coming years it will be hosted throughout the state.