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Cats make impact at The Quest Center

Organization bring street hockey to school for students with special needs

by Kyle Morrison /

The Florida Panthers community team was out in force - despite some heavy heat and humidity in Hollywood on Wednesday - for another summer street hockey clinic.

Dozens of students ran through skill drills and took shots on net, but this particular clinic was about so much more than hockey.

The Quest Center is home to 122 students, all of whom have profound special needs. Their mission is to best equip these students for their future, just like any other school, but under different, more challenging circumstances. Still, the school strives to give its students fun experiences at school - everything from visits like this hockey clinic to an end-of-year school prom.

"My goal as the acting principal of the building is to give them every opportunity to experience the world at large," said Principal Cherie Toeller, "It was so important for us to reach out to the Panthers, to give them an opportunity to experience that joy and that exposure that many of us take for granted."

Toeller first heard of these clinics through a colleague at a different school - Pompano Beach's Bright Horizons, another special needs-focused school in the area - which the Panthers have visited in the past.

"They wanted to know what we did at Bright Horizons, so we explained that it's the same as all of our other hockey clinics," said Panthers Youth Hockey Manager Matt Janusz. "Hockey's a sport that can be played by everyone. It's something every kid can enjoy, and we go out there and we prove that."

With 122 students and 20 teachers, The Quest Center is a very tight-knit community and that sense of inclusiveness and respect resonates strongly with Toeller.

"When we see others making the commitment that we make every day to come onto our site and share with our children to bring joy, validation, respect and dignity into their lives," she said, "it means a lot."

Working in education with special needs students comes with a unique set of challenges, and an exceptional need for empathy and patience. Turns out, there's one very large cat who happens to have those instincts.

Stanley C. Panther was a superstar out at the clinic, getting a lot of laughs and smiles from the staff and students. But he still wanted to do something for the students and staff that couldn't make it outside for the clinic. So, he went room-to-room to introduce himself, and left Toeller very impressed.

"He was so in-tune with the needs of my students," she said. "Everything from when he could hug them, when he could approach them, and being very cool if they were afraid of him."

All of those small details in the interactions with the students really left a mark.

"All of those little things show me how much he is committed to the role that he plays as the representative for the Panthers," Toeller said. "I can't thank him enough, he played an extra special role today."

Thanks to the community team's work, it didn't take long for Toeller to make up her mind about future Panthers visits at The Quest Center.

"Hats off to the organization," she said. "I hope we can do this for many years to come, because I can just see what it brought to our kids."

The organization went above and beyond. They hauled a truck full of hockey equipment, a staff several people deep and brought Stanley along for the ride.

"It's great that we can bring these experiences to people," said Janusz. "What's really important is getting ourselves out there, making a positive impact.

"That's what we want, that's what ownership wants, and that's what everyone should strive for."

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