Basketball games unite East County schools

Photo by Tony Kukulich

A Freedom basketball player hoists up a shot during a Special Olympics Partnership program that united special- and general-education students at Freedom High School last week.

The sounds of basketball and pure joy radiated from the Freedom High School gym and outdoor blacktop during a seemingly routine day last week.

But what appeared to be normal games of basketball were actually unique moments in time that players, spectators and organizers said they will remember forever.

About 20 local school teams converged on the Oakley campus as part of the Special Olympics’ Schools Partnership Program, uniting special- and general-education students around the spirited game.

“This provides (special-education students) an opportunity to socialize and participate in a sporting event with general-education kids,” said Sherri Roberti, the Contra Costa County Office of Education’s (CCCOE) Special Olympics Schools Partnership Program coordinator. “It’s great for the general-education kids, too, because they get to be around the special-education kids and show them the love and compassion they deserve. There are really athletic people out here today.”

The CCCOE and Special Olympics Northern California events immerse students in sports year-round at county school sites, providing inclusive opportunities through soccer, basketball and track and field.

On this day, East County squads comprised of special- and general-education students in elementary through unified high schools rotated courts as routine prep basketball game elements evolved.

Heritage and Freedom high school squads raced up and down the court in a friendly, fast-paced affair, while Falcons cheerleaders, dance line and dance team members amped up the court’s stars. Spectators rooted loudly, and Freedom varsity basketball players officiated the contests — often throwing out the rules in favor of uninterrupted fun.

In turn, the participants thrived.

One Heritage player, Nathan, took time away from shooting to push his wheelchair-bound teammate, Johnny, from basket to basket — at one point allowing him to score via a makeshift basket created with his arms.

“I like pushing Johnny and shooting,” Nathan said.

Fellow Patriot teammate, Nate, soaked up the attention, proclaiming during a game break that he loved his coach and would rather play defense.

On the sidelines, Freedom senior Kendall Beede helped run the event as she absorbed the experience, a manifestation of her passion for campus unity. Beede created a school leadership position dedicated to working with life-skills students to promote inclusivity on campus.

“It gives them the opportunity to see what it’s like to be a general-education student, so they don’t feel like they are being excluded or anything,” she said of the event. “It gives them interaction with other students, and the ability to understand competition and be a team player.

Fellow Freedom student Alexus Slaney, a dance line member, noted that she enjoyed the event’s unity.

“My favorite part is that we are all together,” she said. “We don’t usually do stuff like this. We do basketball and football games, but it’s fun to see everyone from different schools — not just Freedom — come together to do something like this.”

While the on-court superstars proved they are winners, many in attendance remarked that everyone left victorious.

“I think we as spectators benefit more, because we get to see the smiles, enthusiasm and love for the game,” said Heritage coach and teacher Loren Wortinger. “It’s good for everybody.”