District 401's Special Olympics Team to Debut in Basketball Skills Event

Members of the District 401 Special Olympics team gather for a group photo at Elmwood Park High School.

Members of the District 401 Special Olympics team gather for a group photo at Elmwood Park High School. (Photo courtesy Jason Friesl)

After a month of practice, District 401's first Special Olympics team will make its debut Saturday, Dec. 7, in a basketball skills competition at Eisenhower Junior High School in Hoffman Estates.

Team members will compete individually within divisions organized according to ability, age and gender. Skills in dribbling, passing and shooting will be scored based on accuracy and time. 

Opening ceremonies will begin at 8:30 a.m., with Elmwood Park team members scheduled to demonstrate their skills at 10:45, 11:15, 11:30 and 11:45.

"By participating in Saturday's event, we hope our students and families are able to have fun by taking part in an athletic event, feel recognized and supported for what they are doing, and in a supported environment," said Dr. Kari Smith, District 401's Director for Student Services. "In general, we are hoping to build a Special Olympics team spirit districtwide that connects students, families and staff members."

The eight-member team consists of students from Elmwood Park High School, Elm Middle School and John Mills Elementary School.

Their coaches are Ms. Kelly Swindler, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst who works with the special education staffs at John Mills and the Early Childhood Center, and Mr. Jason Friesl, a SPED paraprofessional who works with the District's transition program at EPHS.

Although only four team members will be competing in Saturday’s event, the entire team has participated in weekly practices since early November. 

During these hour-long sessions each Monday at John Mills, participants take turns leading the team in warmups and stretching before working on dribbling, passing and shooting skills based on the Special Olympics skills guidelines.

The team was organized in October with the help of special education teachers Ms. Emily Golz and Ms. Jacqueline Farrell at John Mills, Mr. Charles Curtin at Elm, and Ms. Bridget Flood and Mr. Joshua Heinen at EPHS. Together they helped Ms. Swindler and Mr. Friesl gauge student interest and complete the necessary paperwork for participation.

"We wanted to offer an opportunity for our students with special needs to participate in a wonderful experience," said Dr. Smith. "Also, some of the students have participated in either Special Olympics or West Suburban Special Recreation Association in the past, and we wanted to offer them an opportunity to participate in Special Olympics here in the District, with their peers and staff members."

Other District 401 staff who have been part of the meetings establishing the Special Olympics program have been Brianna Campbell, Tricia Thomas, Margaret Fleming, Marie Geraghty, Stephanie Hagins, Kevin Seibel, Sara Barrick and Pamela Stutzman.

After focusing on basketball skills in the fall, the team will turn its attention to track and field in the spring.

But regardless of the sport, Ms. Swindler and Mr. Friesel are confident their student-athletes will reap the benefits of participating in the program. 

"Special Olympics gives students the opportunity to work as a team, meet other students with similar or differing needs and participate in regional or statewide tournaments," said Ms. Swindler, who volunteered with Special Olympics throughout her high school and college days. In addition, she coached and helped run the Special Olympics program at Proviso Area for Exceptional Children for the past seven years. 

"As the program grows," she continued, "I think it will bring a collaborative mindset and positive opportunities for all students and staff to Elmwood Park and reinforce that sense of community and support that we strive for as a District."

Added Mr. Friesl: "Our participants deserve a lot of credit for not only competing, but for representing Elmwood Park's first Special Olympics team. We hope that they can feel a sense of accomplishment in both competing and stepping out of their own comfort zones." 

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