By: USA Games Correspondent, Tynan Gable
This week’s nominee for the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games #ImAGameChanger campaign is Alexander Rogan Zangari (“Rogan”). Though just weeks away from his graduation from Garfield High School in Seattle, Washington, Rogan doesn’t let anything distract from his exceptional game-changing attitude.
Rogan’s game changer story started early in his junior year of high school; in the Fall of 2016. With no prior experience whatsoever interacting with people with disabilities, he approached a student with severe autism, curled up in a ball on a dog bed on the floor in the corner of a classroom, and taught him how to fly a paper airplane.
“Rogan instantly showed that he has a wholehearted gift for engaging both typically developing children and differently abled children,” said Susan Jones, Rogan’s mother.
In the months that followed, Rogan was able to encourage the child to engage with him, bringing out a playful spirit and an occasional smile that were a rarity before Rogan came along. From the bond that Rogan formed with this student during their twice-weekly lunches together, he was inspired to begin working with children with varying levels of abilities.
During the summer of 2017, Rogan sought to find additional opportunities to work with children with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDDs). He found a job as a summer camp counselor at Seattle Children’s PlayGarden, a “safe, supportive, accessible and innovative place for children of all abilities to play” (https://www.childrensplaygarden.org/).
As a counselor, Rogan’s main duty was to play alongside the children attending the camp, demonstrating eagerness and the ability to include all children in the camp activities, regardless of their abilities, limitations, or lack of social skills when it came to participate in group activities. The main focus of the camps were to help children engage in and learn about gardening, cooking, and other activities related to “nature play.”
The camps were run in weekly sessions, with each week designated to a different age group that fit somewhere in the range of 3 to 20 years old. During his nine weeks as a counselor, Rogan worked with children of all ability levels.
“Rogan is wonderful; he is incredibly playful and spirited in his play. Several parents have asked if he’s coming back this summer,” said Hannah Gallagher, the Inclusive Programs Coordinator at Seattle Children’s PlayGarden.
Hannah was responsible for hiring, training, and overseeing Rogan’s work throughout the summer. She was so impressed with his knack for interacting and forming connections with children at the PlayGarden that she offered him a part-time position to continue his work throughout his senior year of high school.
“Our newest program, Open Play, required that we bring in new staff and Rogan seemed like the perfect fit,” explained Hannah. “He is accountable and friendly, and he works hard to find a way for every child to be able to play.”
As a staff member for Open Play, Rogan dedicates his afternoons and evenings to encouraging exploration and creativity in a variety of activities similar to those done during the Seattle Children’s PlayGarden summer camps. He uses his huge heart and gift for communication to change the lives of the children in the program.
During school hours, in addition to his success in the classroom and his leadership roles on the wrestling and soccer teams, Rogan’s game changing efforts have continued to grow over the past year. He stepped into the volunteer role of “Outreach Coordinator” at Garfield High School at the start of his senior year, in which he utilizes his past experiences to integrate students with IDDs into the school community.
He also committed the first period of his school day to a Teacher’s Assistant role in an English class for students with disabilities. He works one-on-one with students, encouraging even the laziest of his peers to do their work and be excited about learning.
“He is very sincere and shows that he really cares about the students. He has no fear of any of the students’ disabilities and is an overall wonderful asset to my class,” said the teacher, Robin Burcham.
Looking ahead, Rogan plans to work as a summer camp counselor again this summer and will incorporate Special Olympics-themed activities into the camp schedule. In the Fall, he will head off to college, emphasizing his studies in either Cognitive Science or Psychology so that he can utilize his education to continue his game changing efforts long into the future.
The world needs more people like Rogan, ready to make a difference in the lives of people with IDDs every day through genuine acts of inclusion. The future is bright for people with disabilities because of the sincerity and genuineness of Rogan and other young, eager Game Changers around the world.