A group of Illinois Valley Central District 321 students will show off their basketball skills Saturday in East Peoria due to a program now offered through the district.
Special Olympics offers children with disabilities an opportunity to learn and participate in sports they might not have been able to otherwise.
Beth Gundy, District 321 special education director, said families were interested in a local Special Olympics in the last few years after some of their children participated in Heart of Illinois Special Recreation Association in Peoria.
This summer, 2011 IVC High School graduate Liz Norris was at the Special Olympics Summer Games at Illinois State University.
Her interest was piqued, and she and her parents also watched a regional bowling tournament at Landmark. They saw the smiles on the faces of the children participating.
"It was just so rewarding to us," Norris said.
She contacted an area director to see how she could get involved, who suggested she contact IVC Superintendent Dr. Nick Polyak since district officials expressed interest in beginning a program.
That was all it took for Norris to become the volunteer Special Olympics Athletic Director through Special Olympics for IVC District 321.
"I think it was needed," said Polyak. "It shows those students are just as much a part of our school community as the rest of our students."
He also expressed his appreciation for Norris and parents who stepped up to help out.
About 13 percent of the district's students are in special education, of which some of that number are for speech only, or children who are being monitored with Individualized Education Programs.
With a team of roughly 10 students, the former Lady Grey Ghost is leading the children in a sport she knows well — basketball.
The students are learning basketball skills, culminating in the district meet for basketball skills at Illinois Central College where they will be judged on shooting, passing and dribbling.
In the future, the students could explore other sports, such as swimming, track and field and soccer.
Her plan is to find something that all the interested students can do.
Spring, summer and winter games are offered through Special Olympics, which gives children who receive a gold medal at a district meet a chance to compete at a higher level. Everyone gets participation acknowledgements.
"We've got some new athletes who look like they'll be pretty good at these things," said Norris.
Children are split into the junior level for ages 8 to 13, and the high school level of 14 through graduation.
Along with Norris, coaches include her mom Susan, Gina Begner, Jordan Sarver and Kaitlyn Farris. Other adults, high school and college students also assist in volunteering.
The team practices from 6 to 7 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays each week at South School.
Page 2 of 2 - Each practice starts with some fun stretches, and then they break up into three stations: passing, dribbling and shooting.
At the end of the night, the children play something fun like dribble tag and then have 10 to 15 minutes to cool down.
Practices began at the end of September.
"Basketball is one of the easier ones to teach," said Norris.
Making the efforts easier to begin was using the Lady Grey Ghosts' old basketballs when the district replaced them.
The group also has its own uniforms and bought special basketballs that have diagrams for where to place their hands.
"We're thrilled to have this small bunch start with basketball skills, and hopefully, we'll be able to build on that," said Gundy.
The participants, Gundy said, cannot wait for practice, and can be used as a motivational tool in the classroom.
Anyone interested in participating or volunteering may contact Norris at 255-3177 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or Gundy at the district unit office. The program is free to participants with uniforms provided, as well as transportation to meets.