By Barrett Neale
At St. Elizabeth School, a nonpublic school in Baltimore City for 6- to 21-year-olds with special needs, the sports program is an important part of the student experience.
This fall, students are participating in soccer, kayaking, golf and distance running. There are additional sports for the winter and spring seasons, as well as intramural sports and a year-round running club. Physical education teacher Mike Myers coaches some of the sports, and oversees the entire athletic program.
About 75 percent of the students eligible to participate in athletics compete in at least one sport, Myers said. St. Elizabeth student-athletes will participate in the Special Olympics Maryland Kayaking State Games Oct. 5, the Baltimore Running Festival Oct. 12, the Special Olympics Maryland Fall Sports Festival Oct. 19 and the Special Olympics Maryland Soccer State Tournament Nov. 2.
Some of the student-athletes participate in Special Olympics events individually, either running in races or testing their abilities in skills competitions, but others enter as part of a team, Myers said. Additionally, members of the basketball team play games against other schools.
Most athletic training and competitions take place outside of regular school hours, with team sports meeting at least twice per week and individual sports meeting 1-3 times per week. Myers said one of the important aspects of athletics participation was parents being able to provide transportation.
"Special Olympics is a community-based program," Myers said, "so we try to involve the families as much as possible to keep them engaged so they want to be a part of it -- they want to continue participation long after they're here at St. Elizabeth."
Myers said Matthew Weingram, a 17-year-old 11th-grader, was the poster student of the running club.
"When we started [the running club], he ran like he was marching ... with a stride length about the length of your foot," Myers said, "and now he's run the half marathon and he's got a real runner's gait. He's starting to run a couple races on his own. He goes out for runs in his neighborhood."
Gail Weingram, Matthew's mother, said his participation in running, soccer, basketball, sailing, snowshoeing and alpine skiing had provided a necessary outlet for him and increased his confidence, social skills and self-esteem.
"He likes to be active," Gail Weingram said, "but he didn't have a good way to channel it really before he came to St. Elizabeth. ... When you have students with differences and disabilities, a lot of times you can focus on what they can't do rather than what they can do. I think the ability to play sports and to compete with others just develops that whole sense of self."
Gail Weingram said that when Matthew started attending St. Elizabeth at age 11, he was a shy student who presented with a lot of anxiety. With the help of his teachers and coaches, she said, he has made connections with others in the St. Elizabeth community.
"The devotion [and] the dedication of the staff there are really phenomenal," Gail Weingram said. "Every day, we feel very, very lucky that he's there."
Michelle Wright is another St. Elizabeth parent, whose son, Kevin Wright, has been involved with sports since he started at St. Elizabeth in the ninth grade. Now 16 years old and in 11th grade, Kevin Wright has participated in basketball, soccer, track and field, kayaking and the running club, and his mom credited Myers for encouraging him to get involved in athletics.
"Mr. Myers is just such a wonderful person," Michelle Wright said. "He does so much for those kids, and gets those kids involved, and everybody's involved. That's what I like about it. Everybody plays. Everybody has an opportunity to play and put all their effort into it. Those kids put so much effort into everything that they do. It's just wonderful."
Myers praised Kevin Wright for going on additional runs outside of school and building up his endurance.
"He's taken it upon himself to go out and do a little more to try to see improvement," Myers said. "The positive in that is he's going from, 'Man, I really don't like this' or 'I really don't want to do this. What am I doing?' to taking the initiative to go out and go for runs on his own. He'll go out for a run, and not be able to run very far, but at the same time, he voices his pleasure with the experience."
Michelle Wright said she was glad to see her son spending more time exercising and less time playing video games, as well as learning how to be part of a team.
"He knows they're competitive, but they're all one," Michelle Wright said. "They're all supportive of each other. They don't care whether they win or lose, as long as they play well together."
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Issue 189: September 2013