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B I G M I K E By Drew Russert

“I want to be remembered as someone who got a child over a hurdle or two and got them to the next place where they can take off.�



ike is an independent contractor. He believes that all it takes is a little push for kids, who are mentally challenged, to have the will to meet and interact with new people. Mike works as a play therapist who works with kids on the autistic spectrum, or who have other mental or physical challenges, to develop their social and play skills. “I go into schools and I tell them what I can do as a play therapist. There are three things that I’ve always loved doing and that is sports, coaching and kids. I’ve been able to find a way to incorporate those three things as a play therapist.” Mike likes to work in small groups, composed of both typical and mentally challenged kids. The strategy is to use both types of kids so that mentally challenged kids can learn and interact with their peers. “I pull (mentally challenged kids) out of their special needs classes, work with them, and try to develop their play skills and social skills.” What makes Mike unique is that he uses sports to communicate with his patients and he believes that physical activity is the strongest way to develop a kid’s interest in socializing. He has earned the nickname “Big Mike” because he’s been able to remain positive and highly enthusiastic when working with a child.

Mike has several goals when working, but the one that stands out is to get every kid involved with play and to not single anybody out because of their differences. “The reason I’ve always loved my work is because it incorporates Speech, Occupational Therapy, Play Skills, Social Skills, and Life Skills.” Mike has noticed that the longer he works with the kids, the better they develop as friends and teammates. (Make Sure you add specific story of Mike’s play time with group of kids)“They follow directions, they learn to take turns, to root for each other during activities. We really practice teamwork, and with groups you get the dynamics of peer interaction.” Also, Mike’s sessions are about having fun. It is not a competition, but simply a time where kids can become friends. However, on the other hand, Mike’s sessions aren’t easy for everybody. Especially for the mentally challenged kids, the tasks Mike presents them are those that these kids prefer not to do. “What I try to teach is that somebody might be able to do something better than you but perhaps you can do something better than that person. Some of these things that I’m asking the kids to do is hard for them. A lot of these kids like to stand on the sidelines and just watch. It is awkward for them: they’ve tried before and got laughed at or failed. Those kids of kids I pull out of classrooms and

working with. You have to let them know that what they are doing is great. It doesn’t really matter what other people can do as opposed to you. It is the fact that you are trying and participating.”

“I love sports, coaching, and working with kids.”


ne kid Mike’s been working with for quite sometime is Dimitri. He is one of Mike’s favorites and he is interesting because he is very intelligent for his age and for his condition. Dimitri has aspergers, an autism spectrum disorder, that restrains people from social interactions. He wasn’t

“You have to find out what motivates a child.”

“When I would start working with a child, I’ll take a huge bag of all different kinds of balls, ropes, a lot of things. With Dimitri, he was unique in the fact that he could think like an adult, but he had nothing in common

the kid who liked to play with others and he preferred to stay indoors to play chess and be on the computer. People with aspergers often display intense interests, and with Dimitri’s situation, that interest was adult games. He was always alone and he wouldn’t step outside to introduce himself to the world. Dimitri certainly didn’t like sports, he was never the kid who was physically active. Dimitri’s parents con-

tacted Mike, and his task became to get Dimitri more engaged socially through sports and other forms of interaction. At first it didn’t seem to matter as Dimitri still wasn’t interested in playing sports and socializing, but then Mike came up with a strategy to incorporate board games with playing sports and interacting with kids.

with kids his own age.” It was so challenging and stressful for Mike to get Dimitri to go outside more. “I went home and thought: “he loves chess”. So on paper, I drew chess patterns but they were more like pass patterns that a receiver would run.” Mika Peterman, Mike’s daughter, added: “We went to Dimitri’s house one day and my dad had mapped out all of these football plays that we could do out on the field. He did it in a more geometrical manner so

that Dimitri could relate to it and actually execute these plays. Dimitri was immediately glued to these patterns and that is what got him out of the door.” Since then, Dimitri has waited for Mike every Friday with a football in his hands waiting to go play.


counseling and gaining experience, always coaching and using sports as his vehicle. “I remember my father ike has always been a kid, saying to me often that you seem to even now he seems to be attract kids. In a way you’re like a one. Growing up he’s always been magnet. This is something that I do involved with play and working easily and enjoy.” with kids. Mike thought, at first, that every kid knew how to play. Turns “That is the key to out he was wrong: not every kid life, follow your knows how to play and that became passion.” his motivation to work with kids. Before he became an independent Mike’s family agreed that he has the play therapist, he worked part time ability and the nature to reach out to in a boys’ military academy in colpeople and communicate efficiently lege. He did special education, PE, with them. Mika claimed: “Some and helped them with their homeof the unique qualities about my work there. He also worked with dad is that he is very funny. He is a “exceptional” children (mentally big kid at heart. He is emotionally retarded and emotionally disturbed intelligent, especially around kids. kids). Mike then went on to be a What I remember most was being coach and a counselor for schools. a child and how my friends would He went into the probation work look forward to coming to my house with juvenile delinquents. Every because my dad was always the place he went he was practicing his

center of attention. Everyone feels comfortable around him, they can be themselves.” Kenny Peterman, Mike’s son, said: “He’s just calm and he can communicate with anyone. He has that way of making kids know him forever.” Mike has taken his children under his wing. Mike has been their coach throughout their school years, teaching them properly how to play sports, work hard, and how to have fun. Mike’s children surely appreciates the fact that Mike is committed to everything he does, especially coaching and developing others.

Above: Mike and Colin in the pool. Below: Mike and Colin in the YMCA


ike mostly works with groups of kids at schools and parks, but he also has one-onone private sessions. One kid he works with privately is Colin. At birth, his parents were told that Collin would never walk or speak and that he should be institutionalized. Colin’s significance is that he beat all of the odds.“When I met him at age seven he was walking and talking.” Colin did have issues


ike is still doing this type of work today, and he claims that he will do this until the day he dies. Mike loves the fact that he is able to change a kid’s life, to teach them something that no one thought they would be able to do. It seems that in life, kids are either born popular or alone. To some, making friends and socializing is effortless, and for others, the task seems grueling. Some kids don’t have the ability to reach out to others because they are physically unable to do it, aren’t developed enough mentally, or they simply

interacting with kids because he didn’t have the confidence. To develop that, Mike taught Colin how to do things no one thought he’ll be able to do. “We took it a step further and I taught him to ride a bike. He learned to ride a scooter and swim. He learned how to do the monkey bars.” Mike took Colin’s astonishing accomplishment and made it more amazing. A kid, who people thought would end up in a wheelchair for life, is able to do things typical kids can do.

“Some kids just won’t accept no for an answer.”

“I’ve always lived under one rule: Treat people the way you would like to be treated.” don’t have the confidence to do so. Mike understands that it could take several friends or even one friend to get a kid to interact and to have fun playing and socializing among their peers. Mike isn’t that one friend. He is the locomotive, the engine. He steers kids in the direction to make that one friend. Mike is fun and playful, but he feels that the job isn’t complete until his patients are able to go out into the

world and make new friends without his help. Mike is persistent, and won’t stop until a kid is fully prepared to overcome the challenge. Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than helping a kid. I want to be remembered as someone who helped a kid clear over a hurdle or two and got them to the next place where they will take off. I’ve got the most ideal job in the world.”

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