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Balloons from North Shore enjoy second life as volleyballs for Little Neck special needs kids

Leftover balloons that cheered up patients at North Shore University Hospital are now bringing smiles and physical activity to children at PS 811 in Little Neck.

About 100 students at the school, which serves children from all over Queens with severe disabilities, autism and behavioral disorders, are working on their focus and coordination using weighted mylar helium balloons as volleyballs in their adapted physical education class.

"Our students in wheelchairs, because of their cognitive delays, could not use a regular volleyball," said Joan Washington, the school's principal.

Mark Shifter and Suzanne Schoen, the physical education teachers, developed a game called "volley balloon" several years ago in which the students sit in their wheelchairs on opposite sides of a lowered net.

The teachers and paraprofessionals serve the balloons across the net until they float gently to a particular student who can then flick the ball across.

"A lot of them have difficulty just focusing," Shifter said. "This is a very attractive thing to focus on."

Barbara Tetenbaum, the music teacher at PS 811, has been bringing two to three big silver balloons a week - some printed with sayings such as "It's a Girl!" - from vacated patients' rooms at North Shore Hospital in Manhasset, where she is a part-time nurse on the maternity floor.

"It dawned on me. Any time I have extra balloons, I'll bring them," said Tetenbaum, who has been collecting the balloons for two years with the help of the maternity floor's nursing and housekeeping staff.

"They really feel like they're helping and doing something," said Tetenbaum of her hospital co-workers, who have looked with happiness at photographs of the children using the balloons in class.

The recycled hospital balloons have saved the school from having to buy the expensive mylar items, which had been procured before with money from bake sales and other fund-raisers.

"Every year we do what we can to get all the little extra things," said Washington, referring to items not paid for by the Department of Education such as stickers and medals for students' positive reinforcement.

Alana, 17, a Jamaica resident, followed a shiny silver balloon with wide eyes as it floated near her head. At the urging of a paraprofessional, Alana reached up with her left wrist and gave the balloon a hit that sent it shooting over the heads of the children across the net. She grinned with delight at her accomplishment.

"Just the smile on their faces says it all," Shifter said.

Reach reporter Ayala Ben-Yehuda by e-mail at or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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