Making A Difference

Bobbi-Jo Slusar has earned two varsity letters as a hockey player at Wisconsin. However, it’s her skills teaching letters to special-needs kids that has brought her something even more special.

The daughter of a schoolteacher who works with special-needs and autistic children, Bobbi-Jo has worked with her mom Cindy in schools and in summer programs with these children. It has led her to appreciate her life more, and allowed her to see life from a different perspective.

“I spent one day with the kids, and I was hooked,” said Slusar following her team’s workout on Thursday in preparation for the Women’s Frozen Four. “At times it was hard; you don’t want to upset them, upset their routines, because for autistic children, its about routine, and when its broken, they can get very upset.”

I approached Bobbi-Jo about this because I was curious. I have a special-needs child. His name is Jared, and he is four years and seven months old. He was diagnosed with PDD (Pervasive Developmental Delay) when he was about two and a half years old — ironically, while I was covering the women’s Frozen Four in Providence two years ago. PDD is a mild form of autism, but is on the spectrum and needs to be worked with.

Talking with Bobbi-Jo was unique because we spoke the same language. Repetition, routines, teaching these kids to think in pictures, charts on the wall with pictures to help the kids identify their tasks, transitioning to new activities, fear of large and loud spaces.

Cindi Slusar inspired her daughter, a junior defenseman with the Badgers, to become involved in this effort. Studies have shown that early intervention and proper teaching methods from qualified teachers have made a world of difference. They have for Jared.

“It’s such a big deal to watch them do the little things,” said Slusar, whose team faces St. Lawrence in the first semifinal on Friday on CSTV. “However, it is amazing to see how good they are at things they really enjoy. Some of these kids’ computer abilities are fantastic.”

Last month we saw the story of the young basketball player in upstate New York. Autistic, and the team manager, he dressed for his last game of his senior year and drilled six three-pointers in four minutes to lead his team in scoring for the game. The feat made national news on CBS.

As an athlete, working with these kids has taught Slusar an invaluable lesson. Beyond what it has given her personally to make a difference in these kids’ lives, helping them learn to handle the ins and outs of every day, it has also shown her a different side of the game of hockey, and the preparation for it.

“We take so much for granted every day,” said Slusar. “I look at them and the exposure I have had to them, and I see reality. Simple things can be so hard, whether it be using the washroom, putting on a jacket, or brushing their teeth.”

“Practice can be hard, physically in the demands in puts on your body, and mentally when you are learning something new. Sure, it gets frustrating when you can’t figure something out. Then I think back to these children, and all of a sudden, it is not that hard. When I struggle, I think of them and it helps me relax.”

To reach an autistic child takes patience. Their routines are structured so that they don’t get scared. Take them out of it, and you could have your hands full. I have seen it, and lived it.

She has, too.

“I see my mom work with a kid, and I can see that she might get frustrated. Imagine how the kid feels. They are the ones that can’t do it, and then their inability to handle that comes out. The routine is somewhat altered, and it can be a little upsetting.”

This is a field that Slusar wants to get into when she is done playing hockey. A former captain at the prestigious Notre Dame school in Saskatchewan, she has had stints with the Canadian Under-22 team during her college career. The Hounds won a pair of provincial championships when she played there.

An honor-roll student and a sociology major, she is wise beyond her 20 years.

“Working with these kids has helped me in so many ways,” said Slusar. “They have taught me so much. They have taught me about the discipline of routines, about structuring your learning environment. I see the entire process so much clearer, and it helps me when I study.”

Folks like Bobbi-Jo are the future teachers of these kids, who are very special in their own way. I have witnessed the compassion autistic kids have for other kids, and adults. That comes from those who instruct them, and they are needed in every area of North America.

NHL goalies Ollie Kolzig and former Vezina Trophy winner Byron Dafoe, along with 19-year NHL veteran Scott Mellanby, have started an organization called Athletes Against Autism, which raises money and awareness of this condition that affects one in 166 children in the United States and Canada.

All parents raise money to help the cause that will cure or help their children. Mine is the “Goals for Jared” drive. For every goal that gets scored on a game broadcast on CSTV, I donate. Colleagues have donated a quarter, 50 cents, 75 cents, a dollar, five dollars, up to 10 dollars per goal last season. Needless to say we were thrilled to see Harvard score 16 goals at the ECACHL championships on our air.

I told Bobbi-Jo that I’d donate for every goal she scored in the women’s Frozen Four. Even if she goes scoreless, her efforts with autistic children have gone far beyond a number.

Keep an eye on number 10 for the Badgers. She’ll be helping her teammates try to win a national championship. When that’s over, she’ll go back to helping another team try to improve on a daily basis in the game of life.

For more information on Athletes Against Autism, log onto their Web site. To contribute to the “Goals For Jared” drive, you can contact Dave Starman via email. All proceeds go to Athletes Against Autism and the National Alliance for Autism Research (NAAR).