By: Francesca Cassola, Sophomore, Franklin & Marshall College and KidBacker Intern
Meet Zach Certner, co-founder of SNAP: Special Needs Athletic Programs. SNAP provides special needs children with sports programs to help them improve their social and athletic skills, as well as offers sensitivity training to students and teachers. Zach is the co-founder of SNAP with his brother, Matthew. Zach and Matthew were inspired to start SNAP in 2006 when a dear family friend of theirs was diagnosed with autism. The brothers saw the struggles their friend was going through, not being able to play the same sports or go to the same school as them, and decided to create something that would give him and other kids with disabilities the chance to be a kid and enjoy the same things they did. SNAP began as a sports clinic that ran bimonthly in Morristown, New Jersey. However, SNAP quickly expanded as Zach and Matthew saw how many kids wanted to participate in their programs.
In 2009, Zach launched an educational and training campaign. His hard work resulted in the implementation of SNAP sensitivity training programs in classrooms across New Jersey. These programs focus on preventing bullying and encouraging the acceptance of special needs children. By 2012, SNAP was running programs five nights a week for over 150 special needs kids in over six cities throughout New Jersey.
SNAP embraces the motto “kids helping kids” with a mentor program consisting of middle and high school students. The SNAP mentors are enthusiastic and passionate about helping, which has allowed SNAP to thrive. SNAP has won several prestigious awards such as the National Prudential Spirit of Community Scholar, National Caring Award, Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award, National Barron Prize, National Jefferson Award for Public Service, and many more.
Zach is currently 19 and a sophomore at Duke University planning on majoring in computer science with a concentration in finance. He is on the National Youth Leadership Advisory Council for NYLC, a member of Independent Youth, and the President of Morristown Key Club International. Zach has mastered managing his time between SNAP, academics, athletics, along with extracurricular activities – both on and off campus. Zach is a true inspiration to kids and young entrepreneurs everywhere, and proof that you can do everything you want to in life. Read what Zach has to say about his experience as a young entrepreneur.
KidBacker: What does being an entrepreneur mean to you?
Zach Certner: Being an entrepreneur means I can take control of my life. Being an entrepreneur allowed me to take something I was passionate about and turn it into an organization. It has allowed me to take a leadership position as well as shaping me into the man I am today. I believe there is no amount of schooling that could give me the insight and valuable lessons I have learned from being an entrepreneur.
KB: What initiated the idea to start your business? What pain point do you solve?
ZC: Sports have always been my passion, and I was disturbed seeing children excluded from teams and friendships just because they were different. My desire to give every child the opportunity to become part of a team led me to co-found a non-profit organization SNAP, Inc. – Special Needs Athletic Programs.
SNAP provides special needs children with free athletic and social programming five nights a week, aimed at improving their physical abilities, communication skills, and self-esteem. Student volunteers run the entire program, giving rise to our motto “kids helping kids”.
SNAP makes a difference for a group of children who are often overlooked and underserved. My mentors are nothing short of inspirational in their demonstration of patience and devotion. It’s an incredible feeling to watch these kids reach milestones that we take for granted every day: hitting a baseball, scoring a goal, or receiving a trophy for the first time in their lives.
SNAP has benefited our community in many ways. The special needs children thrive because they are the stars, while the mentors develop compassion and a set of skills that cannot be taught in a classroom. My enthusiasm, insight, and peer respect has inspired over 450 mentors who have volunteered over 5,500 hours of service.
KB: How did you fund your business?
ZC: Over the past nine years, we have secured funding for SNAP through private donations, scholarships, awards, and grants. We have been extremely fortunate to have raised nearly $300,000 in order to provide either free or inexpensive programs to our special needs families.
KB: Are you a single founder or do you have (a) founding partner/s? How did you meet?
ZC: I cofounded SNAP with my older brother Matthew (24).
KB: What were the biggest challenges you faced when launching your business? How did you overcome them?
ZC: I have faced several obstacles that have enabled me to grow and expand my horizons. However, none have been as challenging or rewarding as expanding and directing my 501c(3) non-profit organization SNAP: after my brother left for college.
At the age of thirteen I worried I wouldn’t be credible. After working with my brother for three years, I had an appreciation for what these special needs children were feeling.
Although my sports clinics provided a place where they could grow, gain self-esteem, and friendships, when they left our programs there were ostracized, bullied and alone. In preparation for my brother leaving for college, I was excited to implement my vision for the future of SNAP. With my leadership skills I was able to take the strong foundation SNAP already had with its free sports clinics and expand it to include mentorship programs and sensitivity training in New Jersey classrooms to combat bullying and promote acceptance for special needs children.
Under my leadership, I hoped to create an educational component of SNAP, supporting these children in even more ways. My goal was to educate and inspire my peers to recognize the challenges of living with a disability and the benefits of ameliorating the negative experiences associated with it. Through simple activities that model the experience of being disabled, participants are challenged to see the world from an alternative perspective and are then led to discover how the experience can have a positive effect in their lives, their school, and their community. So how was a thirteen-year-old able to overcome this challenge?
In order to initially support this massive undertaking, I needed financing, and more importantly, community involvement. I contacted the Board of Education, local recreational departments, mayors, and other community leaders; fundraising became a necessity and I worked endlessly to locate and contact potential donors. I learned how to speak effectively, be prepared, and utilize my time effectively to surmount this obstacle.
KB: How did you secure your first customers?
ZC: Prior to SNAP, there had never been integrated extracurricular activities for special needs children. When we began, we immediately had a waitlist for our programs, forcing us to expand quickly.
KB: If you had three tips to give other young people who want to start their own business, what would they be?
ZC: Never take no as an answer, you need to persevere and believe in yourself. Be passionate and forge ahead. Never give up and don’t be afraid of failure, failure is the best form of criticism.
KB: Why should young people consider becoming entrepreneurs?
ZC: Becoming an entrepreneur opens you up to an entire new world, especially at such a young age. Working with SNAP, I have not only gained the confidence to lead, but also the ability to speak publically and produce the change I want to see in the world. For anyone who is passionate about business or sees a problem in the community, I would encourage them to step up, work with others, and try to create an organization
- When kids help one another it unifies their community.
- Being an entrepreneur pushes you to develop useful skills and qualities you would not have otherwise.
- Everyone deserves the opportunity to do what they love.
Location: Morristown, New Jersey
Age: 19, Sophomore, Duke University
Business: Social Entrepreneurship
Mission: To inspire youth to work together through athletics, peer mentoring activities, and educational programs
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