Seven years ago, Hunter Leslie, then a student at Garner Magnet High School, asked his teacher if he and his classmates could play in a faculty-student basketball game.
Leslie, a recent graduate of the school and a student with a disability, just wanted to have fun like his fellow students who didn’t have disabilities.
His adaptive PE teacher, Jane House, and his school granted that request, and now the game has become a tradition.
This is the sixth year for the March Madness basketball skills event for adapted physical education students. The adapted PE students show off their skills on the basketball court in a co-ed game versus some faculty and some players on the boys basketball team.
“The kids work all year on their skills and everything just to get in this one opportunity to play in this game,” House said.
Each year the event has grown. Most of the student body comes to the game to support students with disabilities. There are even times when there aren’t enough seats for everyone, as was the case Friday morning when some students had to stand.
But it didn’t matter to them.
For every basket the students scored, their classmates cheered loudly. And when the students scored, they celebrated by either jumping up and down, clapping or pumping their fists.
“It’s just a really wonderful thing to see,” said House, a 27-year teacher. “It does your heart good to see our community and our students all rally behind these kids.”
House has been teaching children with special needs for 10 years and has about 19 students in her classes. Some of the students have autism. Some have other physical or emotional disabilities.
House said she was nervous when she was first asked to teach adapted PE. She had never taught children with special needs.
“But they taught me everything I know,” she said. “They are just awesome to work with, and they help me every day.”
House recruits student leaders each year to help integrate students with and without disabilities. The student leaders work with students with disabilities all year and go on field trips and support them during Special Olympics. She said mixing the students together is beneficial to all of them. They learn from one another and feel like they are equals.
“It helps the school climate,” House said. “It helps them grow as people. They’ll take this memory with them for life.”
Alex Johnson, 18, a senior at Garner Magnet High School and one of the organizers, said the event has helped her, too.
“It helps our regular student body to realize not everybody is blessed with everything,” Johnson said. “That some kids do have difficulties, and just being able to come together as one shows some kids to be as grateful for what you do have and what you don’t have.”
Johnson and others who helped organize the event have been working on it since August. As the game approaches, students get excited, she said.
“It means more than words could ever explain to any of them,” Johnson said. “To show that the kids care, the whole student body cares, that everyone truly loves them.”
Vina Sims, a junior who is also in the special needs class, hit a few shots in the game. She said her favorite part is being able to play a game she’s good at.
Asked what she liked most about it, Vina said, “It’s fun and shooting.”
A couple of the students who once played in the game, including Leslie, came back to support the students. They were recognized at intermission.
After the game, they shook hands and told each other they had played a good game. Both teams got in a huddle and chanted, then broke out with their hands held high.
“Every one just wants an opportunity,” House said. “Everybody can learn. Everybody can shine. You just got to give them a chance.”