What started out as a simple Bar Mitzvah service project for Carmel Valley resident Isaiah Granet has turned into a life-changing program for kids with special needs.
At age 13, Isaiah founded The San Diego Chill, an ice hockey program for children with developmental disabilities. Every Saturday at UCT Ice Sports Center, a group of about 25 kids hits the ice to learn to skate and play hockey from a group of dedicated teenage volunteers like Isaiah.
Only 15 years old now, Isaiah has high hopes for his organization.
The Chill relies on donations to survive. Isaiah recently entered the national UCT Gives Back competition, and his nonprofit was chosen in the top 10. He is looking for support in gathering online votes so San Diego Chill can earn the winning prize of a $10,000 grant. Second place receives $5,000, and San Diego Chill is in third place. People can vote daily until Dec. 4. Visit sandiegochill.org for the link.
To enter the contest, Isaiah had to submit a video about his program, which features many happy children’s faces on the ice and the words of grateful parents whose kids have found an activity they truly enjoy.
The video begins with a quote from Jim Abbott, the former Major League Baseball pitcher who was born without a right hand: “It’s not the disability that defines you; it’s how you deal with the challenges the disability presents you with,” reads Abbott’s quote.
San Diego Chill’s goal is that no child is defined by his or her disability.
In developing the idea for his service project, Isaiah looked to the American Special Hockey Association for inspiration. Most of their programs were for adults; none were really serving young kids with special needs.
“I love working with kids, so I decided that I would do this,” said Isaiah, a sophomore at Pacific Ridge School who plays on a competitive hockey team.
After knocking on many doors, he got help becoming a 501(c)3, got ice time donated at UTC Ice, and went about advertising his program. He purchased equipment like helmets and sticks through donations in lieu of presents for his bar mitzvah. Players also get Chill jerseys with their names on the back.
The program started with 12 kids and has steadily grown. With 30 kids signed up, 25 show up regularly every week. All Chill players get to skate and learn for free.
“We do a one-to-one system, so each kid is worked with individually to fulfill our mission statement, to connect with the kids and have players progress faster,” Isaiah said.
At first, it was tough because the teenage coaches had “no idea what we were doing.” They got help from an ASHA program in Valencia, which gave them drills and teaching techniques that would work with the kids.
“It took off from there,” said Isaiah, who shows up to the rink about a half an hour before the kids and his coaches every Saturday when he isn’t competing himself.
The Chill teen coaches work with players to make sure they’re “growing, skating safely and improving their skills,” Isaiah said.
He has really enjoyed the connections he has made with his players, in particular one youth named Adam.
“I’ve formed a close relationship with him,” Isaiah said. “He has the best smile, and that’s what makes it all worth it.”
In January, the Chill will compete in its second ASHA tournament. A lot of the kids have never competed on a sports team before, so the tournament becomes a huge deal, Isaiah said. Friends and family cheer them on, and they earn a medal at the end.
The Chill has also formed a relationship with Ari Segal, president of business operations for the San Diego Gulls. Recently the Gulls donated tickets, allowing many Chill players to attend their first professional hockey game.
A year ago, UTC Ice had to start charging for ice time. To pay for it, Isaiah applied for and received a U.S. Hockey Grow grant. Ice time is about $8,000 a year and equipment is about $4,000 a year. In addition, Chill covers all tournament fees and associated travel fees —Isaiah never wants anyone to be excluded from participating.
To keep his program going costs an estimated $12,000 to $14,000 a year.
“My hope is that we get this grant, because this program means a lot to the players and to the coaches,” Isaiah said. “If it goes away, there will be a huge hole in their lives.”
He hopes to earn a business degree and said he has goals of running nonprofits in the future, to “keep doing rewarding work.”
Mom Lisa is impressed by her son’s passion and drive.
“At his age, I would’ve never been able to do what he’s done,” Lisa said. “It’s amazing to see this group of teenagers, who supposedly don’t think about anyone else, being so actively involved. They all give of themselves and they love it.”
Further smashing perceptions of self-involved youth, Isaiah said many of the volunteers never even ask for volunteer hours for their time spent with the Chill. He said the teens just get so much out of providing motivation and smiles on the ice. They love playing with and helping the kids.
“San Diego Chill now has the most players of any ASHA programs, and some of those programs have been around for 10 to 15 years. That’s why I think this program has so much potential. We just need support financially,” Isaiah said. “If we can get this money, we will keep fighting to keep this program going.”