Teamwork Part 1: Rekindling Old Friendships
When David first came to live with me as a boy, he had no circle of friends that I knew of, and he had very little social activities besides hanging out with mother. I searched for ways to help him make new friends, but connecting him with others his age with similar interests was difficult. I tried meetings, groups, weekend respite and other activities but had no luck growing those connections into friendships. We heard about a Challenger League baseball team, and signed up.
When we arrived at the first practice, everyone, players, parents, even Coach Dave, cheered and welcomed him by name. They all circled around saying “Hey David, where have you been? We missed you!” I was confused, since I knew his mother, who had passed away was very sick for years. She was unable to take him out due to her illness, and she had no car to drive him places when she was having a good day. “How do you all know David?” It turned out he had been on the team for years. The mother of a friend of his took the trouble to bring him to all the practices and games, but that ended when he went into foster care.
This was the group of friends I had been searching for. He looked forward to every game and played with great enthusiasm. He was able to reconnect with his friends during practices and doing other activities. Most of the players had known each other for years, but they always welcomed a new teammate. The Challengers are like one big family, and even after they age out at 21, they stay in touch.
Teamwork Part 2: Making New Friends
When David was 21 he aged out of Challengers baseball league and really missed being on a team. As soon as we heard about a basketball team that was running out of New Windsor Elementary School, he signed up to play. The team was started in half a gym in 2007. A great young man had just graduated from Westchester Exceptional Children’s School where he was on the varsity basketball team. They could not find a team for Billy to play on in Orange County. His parents and a couple of others went through the necessary training to become Special Olympic Basketball coaches, and put together a group of athletes they decided to call FLAMES . Since then, the FLAMES have grown to more than 18 athletes and will never turn a player away.
There are highlights in every game. These highlights are “firsts” and they are marked by the smiles on the athletes’ faces, their coaches, their families and their friends as well as all the people on the opponent’s side of the gym. Highlights are the first basket a player makes, the first time an athlete steals a ball or defends a basket and stops the other team from scoring. Word spread and many of the friends who played with the Challengers joined the team. A group from his day program also have joined.
The FLAMES have played in a number of tournaments run by the Special Olympics Regional office which are organized with lots of effort by Mary, Greg, and the other coaches. These tournaments are usually at Marist, New Paltz, Anderson School, and Pace University. They have also played in the Rockland League. Orange County does not have a basketball league. FLAMES has been trying for a number of years to get in touch with any other Special Olympics basketball teams in Orange County to start a league here but to no avail. One of the coaches, Jim, has gone above and beyond setting up games with New Hope in Sullivan County and with a team in Dutchess County. They have also hosted a game with the team from Dutchess at Sacred Heart in Monroe.
The FLAMES also participate in the basketball Special Olympics days which are the tournaments run by the regional office. FLAMES athletes have received a number of awards. Awards are typically given out at the end of the tournaments and the FLAMES team has received their fair share of awards. From 3rd place ribbons to second and first place trophies, the Flames have won them all.
The FLAMES have always been lucky with the parents and families of our athletes being very involved and helping out to keep the program running. Every season there is a parents verses FLAMES game, and you can bet the team gives the parents a run for their money. Last year, two young men from local high schools joined the Flames coaching staff and work with our athletes and play in Unified games at New Paltz with the team. They just help out from the goodness of their hearts. The FLAMES continue to be the only Special Olympics Basketball team in Orange County. The team would love to have someone start another program so we have a local team to play against. Our athletes range in age from 14 to 32, with varying skill levels. Our purpose is not only to teach basketball to our athletes but for them to be able to socialize, feel good about themselves, forge friendships, and to have healthy physical exercise.