I took a risk and handed my phone to the teenager two rows in front of us. I wanted a better picture of the sign with her name on it.
“You know one of those kids?” the man standing next to me ask.
“I do. The one second from the coach? That’s my daughter.” I adjusted my coat a bit to make sure my team shirt was showing, as I yelled through my perma-grin over the crowd.
We were in a high school gym full of almost the entire student body. The cheerleaders were there and the dance team performed and the band played. There was a video crew and the scoreboard ticked away and they called each team member’s name over the loud speakers. The packed gym cheered for every athlete, even the ones on the opposing team.
My little ones learned how to do the wave for the first time and I cheered until my voice was almost gone, even though the players couldn’t hear us over the noise.
This is how you do it.
This is how you make people feel important and celebrate differences and create a community of supportive teenagers.
You invite the neighboring city’s Special Olympics basketball team to play your own town’s Special Olympics team and involve the whole school.
Classes make signs for each player, the student council sells t-shirts and the school mascot dances through the crowds.
Next month our team will be hosted by the neighboring school that visited us and the reception will be the same.
Watching our athletes run or walk or limp onto the court to the tune of hundreds of screaming fans was an experience I will never forget.
I’m not one to stand in front of a crowd but I would have gladly taken that microphone at center court and professed my love and appreciation for what the school has done.
As I looked around at the massive gymnasium it struck me that I was the only one tearing up during every other second of the game.
To the students and staff this is just an annual thing. They would shrug off their efforts and say they do this every year.
But it is so much more than that for us. My daughter and her teammates were rockstars for the day. She doesn’t get to run through a tunnel or take home team signs or hear “good game” in the hallway each week. Sometimes we’re lucky to even make it through a store without awkward stares or an under-the-breath comment.
What this school has done, what this community has done, is set the precedent that differences are to be celebrated. They’ve put kids who try so very hard just to get through their day on a pedestal for being who they are and have cheered for them and expected everyone else to follow suit.
And they have, ten-fold.
We’ve experienced nothing but support and kindness from the “typical” kids through Ashlyn’s high school years. I know this isn’t the norm and I also know there are things I’ve probably not seen or heard since I’m not with her every moment of the day. But the attitude of acceptance is contagious. Watching your principal and your teachers and your classmates lift up students with special needs rather than send them to a classroom at the back of the school has affected how our community acts and reacts every day.
These teenagers who are jumping up and down and yelling for my daughter and her team will be parents some day too and maybe they will continue the cycle of acceptance that was began for them.
I hope they do, because this is how kindness spreads and how awkward stares and rude comments end.
This is how you do it.
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