Cary students learn empathy through wheelchair basketball

ajames@newsobserver.comMay 10, 2012 

— Fifth-graders at Briarcliff Elementary School raced to claim a wheelchair Wednesday morning in the school gymnasium before the basketball games began. Their classmate, Nolan Turner, had brought his wheelchair basketball team in for the day so students could feel what it’s like to play a sport with a disability.

The event almost didn’t happen. In late March, Nolan, 12, was selling water bottles at $1 a piece to raise the $1,000 he needed to bring the team to his school when someone stole his cash jar, with $250 inside.

It turned out to be a temporary setback. When word of the theft got out, people from across the country sent donations, totaling nearly $50,000. That was more than enough for his team’s sponsor, Bridge II Sports, a non-profit based in Durham that provides sports opportunities to people with disabilities, to bring the wheelchairs and pay for the insurance for Wednesday’s event.

“I can’t believe this is finally happening,” Nolan said.

Nolan was born with spina bifida, a congenital disorder caused when a baby’s spine fails to close before birth. He’s been at Briarcliff six years, so all of his teachers and classmates are used to his being in a wheelchair or using crutches during recess, said Barbara Bozon, an administrative assistant who calls Nolan her buddy.

On one end of the basketball court, students tried to put the ball into the net with their feet planted in the chair. At the other end, students practiced a stop-and-go game, pushing their hands against the wheels and making big circles with their arms to try to go farther.

“It’s easier to play with your feet than with your hands,” said Abby Bynon, one of Turner’s classmates, after taking a turn shooting hoops. Another student was confused when he dropped the ball and realized he couldn’t pick it up.

Some teachers tried the chairs. Art teacher Debbie Dale, who enjoyed racing Nolan down the court, said, “The whole experience made me think of one word: empathy.”

Lessons off the court

While some students played on the court, another group listened to Bridge 2 Sports founder Ashley Thomas and coach Mia Ives-Rublee talk about how to treat people with disabilities.

“If you see someone with a disability who’s sitting on the sidelines, or who’s not being included, what do you say to them?” Ives-Rublee asked the students. She encouraged them to always include people, despite their disabilities, because it’s possible to make adjustments so everyone can be involved, just as they saw on the basketball court.

Ives-Rublee also touched on bullying, which she defined as “making fun of people because they are different.” She reminded the students to step in and stand up for people with disabilities who they see being bullied.

These are lessons the students get in the classroom, but being able to try wheelchair basketball themselves will make it memorable, said Kristie Strader, one of Nolan’s reading teachers.

“They don’t know what it’s like to be Nolan, but now they know what it’s like to play basketball like Nolan,” said Strader. “Now it’s tangible.”

Police have still not found the person who stole Nolan’s cash jar. Bridge II Sports plans to use the rest of the donations to buy a transportation van for the equipment and also to buy more wheelchairs intended for different sports, according to Thomas. A wheelchair for each sport can cost between $2,500 and $5,000.

James: 919-829-4870

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