Even Strength is an internship program designed to give young adults with Down syndrome the opportunity to work on the game operations staffs of professional sports teams. Even Strength started as an idea that Jeremy Morin, my brother and professional hockey player, and I had five years ago. Our uncle, Jeff Morin, is a middle-aged man with Down syndrome. Throughout our lives and our hockey careers, Uncle Jeff has served as team manager, assistant coach, penalty-box attendant, sports psychologist, and most importantly – as a constant reminder of how individuals with intellectual disabilities both deserve meaningful roles in all of our lives and excel when given the opportunity to fulfill them.
When I brought the idea forward as a potential pro bono initiative for Proskauer, it was met with great enthusiasm. Within the first week, we began to organize resources and create a pilot program plan for 2017. We partnered with the National Down Syndrome Society, the leading human rights organization for individuals with Down syndrome, and got to work structuring an internship program with two missions – providing actual work experience to a group of exceptional young adults with Down syndrome and using the spotlight of professional sports to raise awareness of the employability of individuals with Down syndrome. We spoke with people who had attempted similar programs, navigated an array of federal and state employment law issues, and ultimately structured a program that provides a turnkey opportunity for our team-side partners. Our Even Strength team is responsible for interviewing applicants, working with the team-side partner to tailor potential hires for specific roles within the game operations staff, managing the hiring process, and compensating the interns throughout a 10-game program during the regular season.
Even Strength began looking for a team-side partner to execute the pilot program. Our first pitch was to the New Jersey Devils, made possible through our relationship with Brad Shron, general counsel and Proskauer alumnus. We explained our vision for the program, and the Devils quickly agreed to participate for the 2017 season. In the following months, our team worked closely with the Devils to outline specific roles for our interns. We collected applications, conducted interviews and by January 2017, we had hired Alexa Nacamuli and Freddie Henriquez as Even Strength’s first interns.
Alexa was assigned to work as a ticket attendant and usher. In the hour before a game, Alexa’s duties included scanning tickets and ushering Devils fans through security and towards their seats. At the end of each first period, Alexa switched to her role as usher in the main concourse of the arena. Freddie was assigned to work in the Little Devils Zone, a children’s space in the arena to play games and learn about the Devils. Freddie was responsible for collecting parents’ email addresses and assisting children with the toys and games in the area.
The response from the Devils and their fan base was incredible. Alexa and Freddie were connecting with the Devils’ fans and they brought an undeniable joy to the workplace. They were performing their work duties perfectly. At the end of the 10-game program, the Devils informed Even Strength that they would be extending offers to both Alexa and Freddie to continue with their jobs for the remainder of the season.
We are proud of the success of our pilot program and grateful that the Devils shared our vision. However, we have even greater goals for the program. Even Strength is currently working to expand the program to more teams next season.
Even Strength shines a spotlight on the too-often overlooked fact that individuals with Down syndrome can be valuable employees performing wage-paying jobs. Our goal now is to build on the momentum of the Even Strength pilot program, make the spotlight shine as brightly as possible, and find exceptional people like Alexa and Freddie the opportunities that they deserve.