Helping those with special needs

Bellmorite is dedicated to helping others


Twenty-four-year-old Jamie Kanner is an altruistic member of the Bellmore community who spends her free time running a track program for athletes with special needs.

Kanner, a lifelong Bellmore resident and an alumna of John F. Kennedy High School, started her volunteer-based program, Shooting Stars, in 2014, when she was a junior in high school.

At the time, Kanner was a part of Kennedy’s Advanced Science Research Program, in which she was required to do a side project. In addition to being on Kennedy’s track team, she also had a passion for helping those with disabilities, and was doing research in autism at Nassau Suffolk Services for Autism, so she decided to combine her interests into one program.

“Since I was young,” Kanner recalled, “I always said I wanted to be a teacher, because I’ve always loved kids, and I love watching people succeed.”

Now a technology teacher at Birch Elementary School in Merrick, Kanner has worked with children throughout her adult life, tutoring, volunteering at children’s events and coaching a children’s softball team as well as working with them on the track. In recognition of all those efforts, the Herald is proud to name her its 2021 Person of the Year.

Before the coronavirus pandemic began, Kanner split her track program into four seasons, but recently it has been limited to fall and spring. The program meets weekly on Sundays at Merrick Avenue Middle School for 45 minutes to an hour, Kanner said, 10 to 12 times per season. Students from the local junior and senior high schools in Bellmore and Merrick volunteer weekly as coaches, and run with the children.

The participants are divided into groups, and each group is assigned a leader. The group leaders conduct activities including warmup exercises, games, drills and races. The program has grown to include more than 50 families of kids with special needs.

Ten-year-old Andrew Venditti, of Merrick, whose rare form of infant epilepsy resulted in a number of cognitive and physical impairments, has taken part in the Shooting Stars program for the past four years. His mother, Nicole Venditti, described how helpful Kanner’s program is for her son.

“The things that really help Andrew move forward and learn are activities like Jamie’s very all-inclusive track program,” Venditti said. “It’s fantastic, because it gives him the opportunity to participate at his own ability level. For a lot of us parents, it’s sometimes hard to attend programs like this and feel pressure for your child to perform at a certain level. With Jamie, she just wants the kids to show up and have a good time.”

In addition to weekly practices, Kanner creates social opportunities for children in the program by hosting events such as an annual holiday party in Kennedy High’s cafeteria, and Zumba classes in between the two track seasons. When the pandemic began, and program participants couldn’t meet in person, they met virtually, doing exercises together on Zoom, and played interactive games like bingo and freeze dance, Kanner explained.

“After these individuals already lost so much time together because of Covid, I wanted to make sure they could at least still see each other,” she said. “Most of them had huge smiles on their faces when they got on Zoom and saw their friends from the program.”

Running is a convenient and fun way for the kids to get together, she said. “The best part about running, and the reason I chose to do this type of program, is because it’s something easily accessible that everyone can do,” she said. “All you need is shoes and an area. So it gives people who might not have had the opportunity to participate in other organized sports a chance to come and run. You don’t need to be a fast runner or have any running experience. The goal is to give anyone and everyone a chance to come run, play, and feel like they’re a part of something.”

Venditti emphasized that Kanner is an important part of the Bellmore community. “I can think of no one better for this award,” Venditti said, “because Jamie is so young, but she’s so selfless and so invested in the kids. She is so dedicated, and most of all, she is extremely thoughtful. There are so many children and so many volunteers, but she remembers everyone’s name, and she even knows which volunteers will work well with which children.”

Venditti added that this year, she felt that Kanner truly “hit the jackpot” by matching Andrew with a great volunteer who has helped him make enormous progress. “This year, we’ve been getting Andrew to stay longer and longer, which was always the goal,” she said. “He usually doesn’t stay interested in activities. Now he stays and socializes with other kids from his class who attend.”

Kanner’s family friend Roberta Gochman noted Kanner’s devotion to her mission and her contributions to the community. “Jamie is extremely bright, extremely career-driven and extremely devoted,” Gochman said. “She puts 110 percent into this program. It’s her mission to make a place for these kids, to make them feel included, to move them forward and see their progress.”

Gochman added that through her program, Kanner is helping to make sure that those with special needs are treated equally, and have as high a quality of life as anyone else.