Roberto Hernandez has coached athletes with intellectual disabilities for 25 years. That’s a long time to do anything, but when you talk to Coach Roberto about coaching for Special Olympics New Jersey now, he still has passion in his voice, the same passion he exudes when he talks about his family.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, Roberto’s Catholic upbringing taught him the importance of giving back. During that time, he pursued basketball and eventually played for a national team. After serving in the Army and settling down in New Jersey, Special Olympics gave him the opportunity to combine his passions of basketball and service.
Coach Roberto became a Special Olympics basketball coach in 1994 before his youngest son Roberto Jr. was diagnosed with autism. After all three of his sons got involved with swimming, he branched into coaching swimming and along with Lucille Fenimore, co-founded the Special Olympics Mercer Sailfish swim team that has grown to include 40 swimmers and 12 coaches.
Coach Roberto looks at coaching swimming, as he did with basketball before he retired in 2019, as an opportunity to work on life skills with his athletes.
“Sport is a gateway to life. Athletes learn teamwork, respect, comradery, timeliness and responsibility. I always ask myself, ‘how can we build community and how can we get the athletes to be more included in society?’”
These are the same lessons that Coach Roberto and his wife Aida have taught their three sons. Their sons are all adults now who understand the value of volunteering. “My wife and I have always challenged our sons to be advocates for the vulnerable and disenfranchised,” he says. “This is at the heart of our culture and upbringing. It coincides with the work of Special Olympics.”
In fact, Coach Roberto’s oldest son Carlos has been coaching swimming with him for the last seven years and was his assistant coach for basketball. And his middle son Alejandro, who plays Nurse Casey on the NBC series New Amsterdam, recently gave a presentation on the important of inclusion at a Hamilton community center. Roberto Jr. is a certified lifeguard and volunteers as the lifeguard on duty during half of the practices.
Volunteering as a Special Olympics coach has benefited Coach Roberto personally in a surprising way. “It has presented Roberto (his son and Special Olympics swimmer) to view me as a person as well, not just his Papi.” The younger Roberto competed as a Special Olympics athlete in basketball, although not on Coach Roberto’s team, and as a swimmer on the same team his father coaches. “This dual role has opened the doors to discuss many issues that are of concern to him that he may not necessarily want to discuss with me as his father.”