On the far side of the court, between two sets of bleachers, several cheerleaders—some sporting white jerseys, others maroon – wave pom-poms. Just like the student athletes cruising the basketball court at Keuka College, they are represented by a mix of special needs students and their fellow classmates. It doesn’t matter which side scores, which student makes a basket or catches a pass, the cheers continue and the pom-poms keep on waving.
This is the spirit of the Special Olympics, where children with various physical and developmental disabilities play sports simply for love of the game. And Wednesday, that spirit was in full force as third to sixth graders at the Penn Yan and Dundee school districts met on the basketball courts at the Weed Physical Arts Center for the first-annual Special Olympics Unified Sports tournament. The event was sponsored by the College’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, with a number of SAAC members volunteering to help organize, officiate and run the tourney.
Two unified, or mixed, teams from each school competed, with the Penn Yan students sporting blue or orange jerseys while the Dundee teams boasted maroon or white uniforms. After the backdrop of rock music during pre-game warm-ups, each team was announced to the fans in the bleachers, jogging onto the court and lining up in rows in front of reserve team seats– just like high school and college teams. Vice President of Student Affairs Jim Blackburn welcomed the crowd and the athletes to the tourney, sharing the motto of the Special Olympics:
“Let me win,” Blackburn recited from memory. “But if I cannot win, let me at least be brave in the attempt.”
Teachers, administrators, classmates and families of the Special Olympians from each district were on hand to support the unified teams, with smartphones and cameras at the ready. In the top row of bleachers, classmates from the third-grade integrated classroom at Dundee, held up signs, cheering loudly for the athletes on the court below.
“The entire class petitioned to come – they wanted to support their classmates,” said Dundee Superintendent Laurie Hopkins-Halbert, a 1990 graduate of Keuka College. “They made signs and they’re yelling for their teams.”
Hopkins-Halbert said just the looks on the faces of the Special Olympians when they caught a pass or made a basket were a thrill to see.
“They have been so pumped to do this – and it’s an opportunity they don’t usually get. They have worked so hard at practice, and have put a lot of time into this. It is so exciting to see our kids out here,” she said. “Our regular students who are here have been phenomenal models and teachers for our [special needs] students as well. It’s just a win-win for everybody.”
Speaking of win-wins, at the Dundee team bench, wheelchair-bound third-grader William Smith met David Hull, who is also in a wheelchair. Hull is a 2012 graduate of the Keuka College DRIVE program, (diversity, responsibility, inclusion, vision, and experiential learning), which is a collaboration between the Yates County ARC, the College and Penn Yan Central School District. The DRIVE program provides 18-21-year-old special education students an opportunity to assimilate into the college environment and explore their personal goals.
“It’s awesome – honestly, I think I’m smiling more than they are out there,” said Mike Wainwright ’15, an occupational science major at the College, who volunteered to serve as a referee, and hopes to work with the special needs population as an occupational therapist after graduation. “It’s a rewarding experience to see the love of the game and smiles on everybody’s faces.”
More smiles appear on the court, as an attendant in a yellow volunteer T-shirt pushes William’s wheelchair, while William carries the ball in his lap. The pair make a pass to teammate Trey Brown, wearing No. 10 for the white Dundee team, and Trey makes a two-point basket. As Trey’s personal aide, also in a yellow T-shirt, lifts her arms in a V-sign for “victory,” the crowd in the stands goes wild. As the 10-minute half draws to a close, the crowd begins the countdown and the cheers erupt again.
During a snack break between games, Trey Brown joins his family on the bleachers, snacking on a cookie. Asked how he’s enjoying the tournament, Trey laughs and smiles in delight. “It was good, playing with William Smith in my class, and having friends here to watch,” translates Trey’s mom, Dawn Brown.
“It really makes his day that his family came to see him – we’ve got daddy and grandmas and grandpas from both sides – and Joshua and Bart and Frankie and Nick,” Brown adds, referring to Trey’s friends from school. “I was surprised that his general ed classroom got off for the day to come be spectators, too. That was nice they all made posters.”
“It’s really about tolerance, empathy, understanding and opportunity,” Hopkins-Halbert said. “I’ve heard nothing but positives from everybody.”