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Wauwatosa students learn acceptance through basketball

University of Wisconsin-Whitewater student Lydia Sprain (left) closes in with Whitman Middle School eighth-grader Mia O’Leary-Zovic, 13, as Mia attempts a basket during a practice session at Whitman Middle School on May 9.

University of Wisconsin-Whitewater student Lydia Sprain (left) closes in with Whitman Middle School eighth-grader Mia O’Leary-Zovic, 13, as Mia attempts a basket during a practice session at Whitman Middle School on May 9. Photo By Peter Zuzga

May 15, 2013

To truly know someone, it is said you must walk a mile in their shoes. In the case of Whitman middle school students, they played a basketball game in wheelchairs.

The game, run by the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Wheelchair Athlete program Cornerstones for Success, showed students not only the power of determination, but the power of accepting someone who is different than them.

The game pitted groups of randomly selected teachers and students against the UW-Whitewater team in a game of wheelchair basketball. The collegiate team members also spoke about how they became disabled and how they managed to continue being an athlete.

"It gives them an understanding of how some people might think it's really easy, then they try it themselves and understand that it takes a lot of work and practice," wheelchair basketball coach Dan Price said. "If you want to be really good with something, you have to put the time and dedication in."

Price became disabled as a child due to a tumor on his spine. Other members of his team had polio, spinal injuries or other conditions that caused a physical disability. None let their lack of leg control discourage them from basketball or other sports. Some shared stories about how they swim, ski and play other sports. The theme of the day was that people with disabilities can enjoy the same activities that able-bodied people can.

The event was sponsored by the Whitman Parent-Teacher Association, which swapped the day with what normally is Discovery Day. Discovery Day was much like High Interest Day in the elementery schools and involved many activities in classrooms throughout the day. The PTA wanted to host an assembly for all students, but didn't know where to go.

Ideas like hosting an anti-bullying speaker were thrown around, but nothing stuck until PTA member Beth Stuberg spoke about the Cornerstones for Success program and the impact it made on her.

"There has been such a focus on anti-bullying that we didn't want the kids to click off," PTA President Andrea Gaines said. "Don't get me wrong, it's vitally important, but we wanted something that was going to be a little different and really grab the kids' attention. We wanted something where they felt more involved."

Gaines, whose son was selected to play against the UW-Whitewater team, was left with a lasting impression.

She has two children in college. She couldn't help but think about how the wheelchair athletes reminded her of her children.

"Talking to them was just like talking to my son or daughter who are in college," she said. "They like to give a laugh, be silly and hang out, which is exactly what all young people like to do."

She will be presenting the group's contact information at the next inter-school PTA meeting and hopes other schools bring in the athletes as well.

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