Twelve youths, ages 4 to 9, lined up on the sideline in the gymnasium last Tuesday at the Boys & Girls Club, ready to show off their skills to Daniel Mezhir, Cara Gabriele and a handful of spectators on hand for the Niagara County Community College Superstars program.
The girls and boys were quite excited to have the opportunity to participate in the Superstars, an unofficial rite of summer for youngsters in this area.
The youngsters have been eager to please -- maybe a little too eager, as evidenced by the first of three games of Simon Says.
As Mezhir uttered the first command, all the children took one step forward -- before breaking out in laughter because they realized Mezhir didn't include the words Simon Says before issuing the order.
The children needed a mulligan to ultimately decide the first of two winners in this portion of the friendly skills competition, but at least they had the opportunity to participate in the program -- something that looked highly doubtful a month ago.
Cash problems threatened to ground the Superstars program after 29 years.
The Superstars almost faded away because the college cut the program's funding between 5 percent and 10 percent each of the past six years. Organizers understand the realities in a region where a growing number of programs chases a shrinking pot of dollars, but the cuts made it more difficult to cover the program's $10,000 cost.
This year, because of the cuts, the program will last three weeks instead of the usual four.
NCCC, the Niagara County Youth Bureau and a grant from the office of State Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, helped fund the program -- but the Superstars ultimately is celebrating its 30th anniversary because it received a major gift from the Buffalo Bills.
The Bills gave the program a $5,000 grant three weeks ago that is enabling hundreds of youths to participate in the program, which Mezhir, an NCCC professor, founded in 1977.
The program, for children ages 4 to 16, is modeled after the televised 1970s athletic competition that featured the major star athletes of that era.
"The fact [the Bills] came through, they knew we were in dire need of something," said Daniel Mezhir, the associate director of the program along with his 23-year-old son Jim. "There was no way we'd be able to put on the program if the grant came any later. It worked out very nice for us."
"I think what it is, is the reality of the real world is funding is being cut back for youth programs all over," said Jim Mezhir. "Unless we can look for additional money, it's very difficult to keep youth programs like this going. This isn't just happening to us. There really is no funding from year to year. It depends on the people who are committed to the program."
The Mezhirs have been committed. Each of Jim's five children have either participated or worked at the camp, which travels to various sites across Niagara County.
The Superstars program is designed to teach kids about more than the thrill of victory. Participants are rewarded for their efforts regardless of their finish in the program's various events. The goal is to help youths build their self-esteem while they're at an impressionable age.
Besides Simon Says, the program's events include the 50-yard dash, side-step agility drill, soccer skills, Frisbee throw and basketball free throw shooting. At some sites there also is a softball toss and radar speed pitch.
The most distinguished graduate of the Superstars program is former Dallas Cowboys fullback Daryl "Moose" Johnston, a Lewiston-Porter High School alumnus.
Jim Mezhir said he was determined to make the 30th year happen even if the Bills hadn't stepped up with such a generous assist. But he's grateful he didn't have to find a way to pull off a miracle without the Bills.
"We're so lucky and so fortunate," said Mezhir. "I would've done just about anything to get into the 30th year. I truly believe the college would have come up with additional money, but the Buffalo Bills are ultimately responsible for our success this summer."
That said, the program isn't operating in quite the same manner as it has in past years.
Besides the Mezhirs, Gabriele is the only other regular employee this summer, which had typically received some workers in training from the county. That didn't happen this summer because of the uncertainty over whether the program would take place. In past years, there would be enough employees working the traveling camp to supervise the 100 or more children who attended a daily competition at one of the many sites in the county. Since it's basically Daniel Mezhir and Gabriele, a nursing major at NCCC, running the show on a daily basis, participation has been limited to roughly 30 in order to insure the safety of the children.
"We have a smile on our faces the whole time -- but it's very difficult to put together a solid schedule because we have to stay away from some sites [that are bigger]," Mezhir said.
The other big change is that there won't be the NCCC Superstars finals on the Sanborncampus during the second week of August. Since there isn't enough staffing to hold the two-day finals, there will be an art contest instead, with participants vying to have their drawing selected as the program's official 30th anniversary logo. The winning prize is a pizza party for the artist and his/her site-camp group.
Though the usual format has been changed, the program still is achieving its goal of getting children active, introducing some to athletic competition for the first time while making sure others engage in exercise instead of indulging in too much television or video games during summer vacation.
"We want them moving around," Mezhir said. "I think it should be stressed at a younger age kids need to be outside and playing. As we grow up, we see just how much more difficult it is to stay in shape. You get used to just sitting around doing nothing and it turns into something long term."
> Superstars schedule
Due to the program's late start, organizers still are interested in adding sites and youngsters to the schedule. For more information, call Daniel Mezhir at 531-3266 or send an e-mail to NCCC_Superstars@yahoo.com.
Below is a list of competitions already scheduled. They begin at 10 a.m., unless otherwise noted:
Tuesday: Boys & Girls Club, NCCC in Sanborn.
Wednesday: Boys & Girls Club, NCCC.
Thursday: Fairmont Park, North Tonawanda.
July 30: Town of Niagara Town Park (noon).
July 31: Boys & Girls Club, Hyde Park, Niagara Falls. (9:30 a.m.)
Aug. 1: Cambria Recreation, Cambria.
Aug. 2: Boys & Girls Club, Hyde Park, Niagara Falls. (12:30 p.m.)