Alex DePalma of Brick Township has turned a labor of love for young people with developmental disabilities into one of New Jersey's fastest-growing athletic endeavors.

Today, Alex officially accepted his selection by New Jersey First Lady Mary Pat Christie as April's New Jersey Hero for his mentoring of the Brick Stars Challenger Ice Hockey program.

DePalma is the driving force behind the program that brings together young people with developmental challenges from as young as five and as old as 21, once a week on Sundays, to practice and compete in the rugged sport.

The award gives DePalma $7,500 to help his special-needs athletic initiative grow. "They pay $400 an hour for ice time," said Mrs. Christie. "Ice time is very expensive. This will help defray those costs."

NJ Heroes is Mrs. Christie's program to recognize people who create positive and lasting impacts on their communities.

During the presentation at the Ocean Ice Arena on Chambers Bridge Road, DePalma characteristically turned the spotlight on his young aspiring athletes.

"These kids are the heroes," he said, "just because of the disabilities they already have, and then to some out here every day, to skate, to do something out of their comfort zone...the parents, it's just amazing."

Achieving the honor is even harder than playing ice hockey. Mrs. Christie maintains 12 board members in the program, and a screening committee for scores of nominees in all walks of life from all over New Jersey.

"They bring...a final five to me, and then...as a group, we pick the hero," she said.

Alex, a construction laborer by day, was nominated by Natalie Ferrera, which drew the attention of NJ Heroes Executive Director Casey Girardi. "When she came down," says Mrs. Christie, "there wasn't a lot of challenge to make him the hero."

She says that they're scouring the state for new heroes all the time, and encouraging people to nominate those giving of themselves to their communities.