By JOHN MARSHALL
Updated: December 22, 2021 06:00 PM
Created: December 22, 2021 03:44 PM
GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) - Matthew Adams and Chase Baird line the entrance to the Arizona Coyotes' team store like sentinels of joy, bumping fists, slapping backs, energizing every person who walks through.
Decked out in matching Coyotes Christmas hats, the two best buddies work their magic with a natural flair, spreading cheer with a dash of hype for wave after wave of fans.
The job is a perfect fit for Matthew and Chase, two gregarious teens with Down syndrome. It's great for the Coyotes, too, an opportunity to expand the franchise's community outreach and inclusion programs. And, judging by the smiles and enthusiastic reactions to Matthew and Chase, it's also a big hit with Coyotes' fans.
"This is what they shine in," Matthew's mother, Michelle, said while keeping a watchful eye on her son with her husband, Michael, at Gila River Arena. "They love talking to people and seeing people, but there's not that many opportunities for them out there like this. And people really seem to enjoy seeing and talking to them."
Matthew and Chase were hired with four others by the Coyotes through Angels for Higher, a social-profit organization that facilitates the hiring of people with Down syndrome to serve as greeters sports venues, college campuses and performing arts centers across the country.
Angels for Higher had a humble beginning: an affable young man with Down syndrome landing a job as a greeter with the Los Angeles Angels.
Trevor Hendershot wowed the Angels during a job interview and was hired on the spot to work in the 2012 season, becoming nearly as popular as the players around Angel Stadium. He's since added the Ducks, Rams and University of Southern California athletics to his jolts-of-joy resume.
Robert Hendershot watched his son thrive and the awareness it raised for people with intellectual disabilities, so he founded Angels for Higher in 2019 to expand opportunities for others. The organization started with the Inland Empire 66ers minor league baseball and has expanded across the country to nearly two dozen sports teams, including major professional franchises in Chicago, Cincinnati, Nashville and Oakland.
Hendershot works with local Down syndrome organizations to find people who are the right fit: outgoing, strong enough to work four to five-hour shifts, able to handle the loud noises and occasionally-obnoxious people.
The Coyotes teamed up with Angels for Higher this season, hiring Matthew and Chase at the team store, two others to work concessions and two who serve as ambassadors of sorts around the arena.
"I feel I personally get more back, our organization benefits more from programs like this because it brings joy," Coyotes President and CEO Xavier Gutierrez said. "At the end of the day, sports is in the memory-making business. We're here to create memories. If we can create that joy and happiness when you're coming into our home here, it's wonderful."
With the joy comes awareness.
For most people, interactions with people who have intellectual disabilities are limited. Angels for Higher puts people with ID in the forefront, providing a glimpse into the joy for life and purity their families see every day.
Fans at Southern California sports venues seek out Trevor when they come to games and are disappointed when he's not working. The majority of fans at Coyotes games light up when they see Matthew and Chase, gleefully bumping fists, engaging in conversations, smiling as they walk away.
"They're on the front lines of raising awareness," Robert Hendershot said. "I would gather 90% of the people at sports events never have any kind of meaningful interaction with anyone with Down syndrome, let alone conversations."
Angels for Higher also provides answers.
School programs for kids with ID have taken huge steps the past few decades, providing the resources and support they need. Transitional programs help once school ends, but those typically last just a year or two, leaving parents to figure out what's next for their kids on their own.
Angels for Higher offers an opportunity they might not otherwise get, bridging the gap to adulthood.
"It's not like they have to learn something that's out of the ordinary like trying to teach me how to fix a computer or something like that," Hendershot said. "They're kind of good at it already, just fit in and can be themselves. They're great at it naturally."
Matthew and Chase are proof.
The two have known each other since they were babies and are members of the Hip Hop Homies, a dance group that performs at nursing homes, churches and foster homes. The group will dance at halftime of a Phoenix Suns game in March.
When Matthew and Chase graduated from high school earlier this year, their parents weren't sure what the next step would be.
Working as greeters at Coyotes games proved to be a perfect fit, giving them the responsibilities that come with holding down a job while allowing their beaming personalities to shine.
"This came at about the right time," Michael Adams said. "It's really been great."
For everyone involved.
(Copyright 2021 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)