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Local keiki with special needs get a chance to play sports

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - 12/16/2018

Dec. 16--Kaimana and Kawika Gilding of Aiea are active, like many 6- and 8-year-old brothers. They are Cub Scouts and also practice judo together.

But until recently, Kaimana could not join Kawika in playing most sports.

At 18 months of age, Kaimana was diagnosed with nonverbal autism. Most children at that age speak at least a few words, but Kaimana did not. He still has difficulty communicating verbally, and uses a speech-generating device at school and home. That keeps him sidelined from many recreational activities.

But now, thanks to the Never Quit Dreaming organization and scores of volunteers, Kaimana has played on a baseball team for the first time and is learning some golf basics.

He is among 22 children with special needs who recently completed their first baseball season as members of the Firebirds team and nearly 50 who showed up to take swings at Mililani Golf Club and Hoakalei Country Club during two sessions in October. Also, Never Quit Dreaming's second soccer season just wrapped up Saturday. A third soccer season is planned for the spring.

"It helps because his brother plays baseball, and now he has the opportunity to go and do it, too," said their mother, Kristi Gilding. "He enjoyed it a lot, especially the games."


For information about participating in or donating time or other resources to Never Quit Dreaming, email Kris Dung at, or go to the organization's website, The organization's sports programs welcome special- needs children ages 5 to 15.

The Firebirds are the first baseball team in Hawaii designed for youth with special needs, organizers said.

"It's kind of experimental, but we're hoping it becomes a regular thing," said Peter Nakagawa, a coach with the Central Oahu Youth Baseball League, a division of the national organization Protect Our Nation's Youth, who helped organize the team. "Without a program like this, it would be dangerous at their age to try to play baseball."

Nakagawa got in touch with Mililani High School baseball coach Mark Hirayama, and Hirayama agreed to have his Trojans players work with the Firebirds as mentors.

"The Trojans were instrumental," said Never Quit Dreaming founder Kris Dung. "Without them it doesn't happen."

Ten to 12 Mililani players showed up every Saturday, giving the Firebirds the constant one-on-one attention needed to start learning baseball basics. The inaugural season ran from Aug. 11 to Oct. 6.

"Baseball's kind of a hard game," said Kelly Dung, Kris' father and a Never Quit Dreaming volunteer. "But after two weeks they were hitting pitched balls."

Hirayama said "it's a no-brainer" that Mililani players will participate again.

"We got more out of it than what we contributed," Hirayama said, "just for the fact the boys have to understand they're privileged to play at the level that they do. Our society now is me, me, me. I heard a lot of positive stories from our parents. It got to the point where our kids were saying, 'Hey, can I go again?' "

Kris Dung said the Firebirds' next season will be scheduled during the Trojans' offseason so they can help again. A second eight-week season is slated to begin in August.

He was a high school baseball player himself, at Damien Memorial School. When asked what position he played, he laughed and answered, "bench." Maybe that's part of why he has so much empathy for kids who usually have to watch others play. But it's also part of how he was raised.

"I taught him that you gotta give back," his father said. "But I never thought it would lead to this."

Dung said the focus is on fundamental skills, not competition.

"We don't expect them to be perfect. There's a lot of station work, and we use some adaptive methods. The Velcro pad on the glove makes it a little easier to catch, we include things like that. We use tennis balls, Wiffle balls," he said. "We use sports as a forum, but it's really to get them involved in social activities, being part of a team and performing at their own pace."

Dung, 35, of Makakilo, has a full-time job at the human resources office of the Navy and runs Never Quit Dreaming in his free time.

"At some point I recognized that there's not a lot of recreational opportunities for kids with special needs," Dung said.

Never Quit Dreaming is a nonprofit with the mission to "create recreational activities and unique experiences for special needs children living in Hawaii," according to its website.

Beyond sports that includes discounts for events like Amazing! Comic Con Aloha, which runs Feb. 22-24 at the Hawai'i Convention Center.

To keep things running, the nonprofit depends on donations and grants. The Firebirds' equipment was purchased with a grant from Friends of Hawaii Charities.

Dung works with the American Youth Soccer Organization and the Els for Autism Foundation in soccer and golf. Sean Gordon, a golf challenge coordinator with professional golfer Ernie Els' group, came to Hawaii to help with Never Quit Dreaming's first golf clinics earlier this year.

"For us, it's really looking at it from a community standpoint," Dung said. "In addition to the high school baseball players there are all kinds of donations (received) -- silk screening for T-shirts (Go Deep Sports), baseball trading cards of the kids (from Chase Nuuhiwa, who also assists Dung with the organization's website). It's not just one person, it's a community effort."

Kristi Gilding appreciates that her sons both can participate in the events.

"We have no restrictions on that," Dung said. "A lot of times it's much more convenient for the parents when they don't have to do two drop-offs and two pickups."

Never Quit Dreaming started its sports programs in 2014 with just three kids at its first soccer practice, but word is getting around. Gilding learned about the foundation via an announcement at the boys' school.

"He's a really amazing individual," Gilding said of Dung. "He's so great with the kids, gets involved directly. All the families got together to give him a (financial) gift. He said 'thank you,' but he put it all back into the program."


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