Garden City Athletic Association binds community together
The Garden City Athletic Association (GCAA) is a linchpin of the Village of Garden City. Helmed by president Albert M. Vanasco, the GCAA has been the source of assorted sports programs for more than three decades. In addition, Vanasco and his army of volunteers has been concurrently running the Challenger program, which offers sports for special needs children. Run by a 12-person board, the GCAA offers myriad programs—baseball, softball, football, basketball, field hockey and most recently running, which began in the past few years. For Vanasco, who has been involved for 35 years and been the head for almost as long, he’s marveled at the organization’s evolution.
“When we started out, it was a baseball program, then we added softball and boys intramural soccer. So soccer has gone away, but we’ve really expanded the baseball and softball programs here. We’ve added a very good football program and basketball too,” he said. “We also have a very good field hockey program and we have a running program for kids who just want to run. They’ll run in the Turkey Trot or one other race. It’s just to help them get out. All this stuff happens because we have great volunteers. That is really the crux of it. It’s not me. These volunteers are wonderful.”
The GCAA has roots that date back to the founding of Garden City Little League, which was founded in 1955 (“I hate to admit it, but I was probably on one of the first teams,” Vanasco said with a chuckle.) Among its accomplishments was kickstarting football in the early ‘90s with the Garden City Thunder once the area’s other program, the Garden City Rams, folded. But it is the Challenger program that is a particular source of pride for Vanasco. He admits that when the idea first came up around 1989, it was quite the uphill climb.
“I made hundreds of phone calls. Back then, people didn’t want to admit that they had a child with an issue. So it was very difficult,” he recalled. “You had to get SEPTA to send out fliers. Nobody understood what it was, so it was very hard. The first year, I got eight kids, four from Garden City and four from West Hempstead. Our program for challenged kids has always been open to anybody, anywhere. Next year I get 20 kids. Over the years, I’ve had kids from the Bronx and all over. But as more programs sprung up, most of the kids I get are from the local communities. I think I have one or two kids come in from Queens but most of them are from Nassau, because there are a lot more programs available.”
Having started out with baseball, the Challenger program has expanded to offer lacrosse, basketball, golf, tennis and platform tennis. With its roots dating back to the early ’90s, the lacrosse program was only the second one in the country for special needs children after one that was started in Maryland. The popularity of it spawned a Nassau County tournament that just celebrated its 27th anniversary, hosts roughly 250 players and rotates between fields in Garden City, Floral Park and East Meadow. Vanasco was also forward thinking enough to consider what special needs children would do once they became adults. Golf and tennis became the logical options for Challenger to target next.
“These kids, like us, played sports in high school, maybe college and then it’s over. Then we gravitate to golf, tennis or something but these kids don’t,” he explained. “Our program is from 6 to 18 and if they’re still in school, it goes to 21. But then, it’s over. I thought maybe we could do a lifetime sport.”
The backbone for GCAA and the Challenger Program is the willingness of people to donate what they can, a fact that Vanasco is quick to point out.
“What makes Garden City special is that it’s almost intertwined and it’s community. The people in the village are very supportive. The ones who can help with time, help with time. The ones who can help financially, will help financially. They love the Challenger program,” he said. “There’s not that many communities left in this country. Everything is kind of bifurcated. That’s why all this works. It’s because of the community and all the generous people in it. The GCAA is just part of that community.”
Call Al Vanasco at 516-741-6767 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more about the Garden City Athletic Association (GCAA) or the Challenger program.