South suburban focus
As Zach Clark dribbles the ball down the court, his friends from the varsity football team scream "Go Zach, go." For the past two years he was the one cheering for them. The Pep band, the cheerleaders, the school dance team, the Courgarettes, were all there for him. His parents were there, too.
Clark, a senior at Plainfield South High School, is playing high school basketball for the first time. He is a special education student with developmental delays and for years, school was nothing more than academics in a self-contained classroom.
But things are changing. When Clark joined the football team as the varsity team manager two years ago, his job was to cheer the guys on. Then last spring he joined the special education track team. And this year the school began a special education basketball team.
Plainfield South special education teacher and the new Cougar SCORE Coach Kelly Chlada says she knew there was a need for a basketball team. "I proposed the idea to the district, got an OK, found a date the gym was open and got the word out that I was starting a team. I had my mind made up." Sixteen kids showed up for the first practice.
Jeff Sturgeon’s son Trevor, who has Down syndrome and is a sophomore at Plainfield South, played on a basketball team through Western DuPage Special Recreation Association, "but being on a rec team is nothing like being on your high school’s team... Being on a high school team makes you feel a part of the school."
Many high schools offer isolated Special Olympics opportunities but few have added special education sport teams like in the community of Hinsdale, which has offered a basketball team for seven years.
"Our Special Olympic basketball team is just like any of our other athletic teams," says Tim Feigh, Hinsdale South athletic director.
The Hinsdale South Basketball team plays a full season, 10 to 12 games, and even has a special education cheerleading squad. It plays Willowbrook, Oak Park River Forest, Lyons Township, Addison, Downers Grove South, Glenbard South and all three high schools in Naperville. "We’ve had so many requests for games, our team was playing three games a week and we had to start turning schools down," says Hinsdale South Special Olympics Basketball Team Head Coach Kathy Craig.
Just the beginning
Last month, Cougar SCORE played at "Pack the House," a special event to introduce the team to the school and the community. It was just a scrimmage game, but the bleachers were nearly filled.
"My goal is to bridge the gap between those with disabilities and those without," says Chlada, who plans to expand the team’s schedule next year and inspire creation of more teams. In February, the Plainfield School District acknowledged Chlada’s success and agreed there was a need for teams, opening the door for Plainfield North, Plainfield Central and the new high school opening next year, Plainfield East.
"I swelled up with pride," says John Moody. "Like any other parents, it was exciting to see my son Brandon compete, to see what he can do." Then he pauses. "Brandon can do things I never thought were going to be possible for him. Brandon surprises me everyday."