‘A chance to shine in their own light’

Published 12:10 am Thursday, February 10, 2022

RISE Indoor Sports hosts pilot program for Exceptional Children

By Marc Pruitt
Clemmons Courier

One by one, they exited the basketball courts on their way to a pizza lunch after a fun-filled morning at RISE Indoor Sports.

They were greeted with high-fives and fist bumps and some hugs from some of the adult chaperones. A few were even still huffing and puffing after coming off the indoor soccer fields.

It didn’t stop the smiles, which were beaming from ear-to-ear.

It was a great day at RISE for 35 students in the Exceptional Children’s (EC) program at Mount Tabor High School on Feb. 1.

They participated in a pilot program that the organizers of the event hope launches an even wider umbrella for EC students in school districts in the area.

The students were divided into four different groups and rotated through each activity — badminton, volleyball, soccer and cornhole — for about 20 minutes. The activities were modified to suit the needs of the students.

“I just wanted the kids to come out here and have a good time while doing different things,” said Robyn Wesselman, a physical education and health teacher at Mount Tabor High School. “I’ve had this idea forever and I’ve been talking to Catherine Gage and Nancy Scarborough-Black (teachers in the OCS program at Mount Tabor) about doing something like this, give them a chance to maybe do some things that we really can’t do for them during a normal PE class at school. We wanted to give them a chance to shine in their own light.”

Exceptional Children (EC) are students that can have leaning, physical, cognitive, medical, and/or social/emotional deficits that impact their ability to access a regular education environment without specially designed instruction and supports.

Wesselman has been a teacher and volleyball coach for 25 years and plans to retire at the end of the school year. She also coaches club volleyball and is frequently at RISE for club practices and events.

“I was here one day and just asked them, ‘Hey, what do you have going on here during the day? I’ve got this idea and need someplace to do it. Would you let me try this?’,” Wesselman said. “And it just so happens that they had been talking about doing something like this because it would be a new area for them and something they would love to get involved with. From that point on, they were all in and things started falling into place.”

Wesselman contacted Karen Garmon, the director of PE/Health and Life Skills for the Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools and let her know of her idea.

“I’ve been here for about a year now after being in Wake County and I’ve been looking for partnership opportunities like this,” Garmon said. “And Robyn is such a go-getter and one of my ‘go-tos’ since I arrived. This is a great example of the outreach we would love to see more of. And these kids are Robyn’s passion. I think everyone could see that today. We’d love to use this as a springboard to bigger events down the road and a partnership with Special Olympics and Unified Sports. It just makes a lot of sense for us to continue to grow what we did here today.”

Haley Allen is the assistant director of youth initiatives for the Special Olympics in Western North Carolina. She got a firsthand look at the events during the day at RISE and came away impressed and encouraged that bigger things are ahead, including the possibility of expanding participation in Unified Sports programs at area schools.

“This has been an incredible test run and exciting first step in getting this program into a lot more schools in this county,” Allen said. “Anytime we can promote inclusion in sports experiences for these children in all levels, we view that as extremely positive. Robyn and her dedication to this really shows and with all the people around her willing to help, we can see this really taking off in not just this county, but in surrounding areas as well.”

Jeff Wallace, the superintendent of Davie County Schools, was also on hand to watch the activities unfold. Wesselman invited him because she hoped it would be something he would like to see implemented in his district.

“The more opportunities we have to put our EC children in safe environments to expose them to and stretch them both mentally and physically, especially to get them active, and all under the umbrella of fun, is just a great opportunity,” Wallace said. “It’s an opportunity that we cannot do in a typical classroom setting. I can definitely see us doing something more permanent with RISE with a program like this in the future. I saw an organization outside of our school walls that was willing to reach in and support our children, and I saw Neil (Cornatzer) and Lane (Newsome) at RISE willing to open for us. That’s a network that’s willing to step in and help and support children. I think it’s wonderful that they see the value in that and even more wonderful that these kids can benefit because of it.”

Savannah Sperlazza, a transition coordinator for Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools, has been with the district for about a month after coming from Ledford, which was a national banner school for Unified Sports for the last five years. She is excited to lend her expertise as the program grows.
“I would say it has been an awesome day,” Sperlazza said. “It’s just wonderful to see them fully engaged and moving and having a great time. This not only helps them socially but also with their goals. If they are feeling more active, they are preparing themselves for life after high school, which is what I like to see. This helps them understand the values of fitness and moving and taking care of their bodies. And the social piece of this is also really beneficial.”

In the short term, Wesselman would love to organize the next event around a competition between Mount Tabor and Davie High School in cornhole and basketball. She also wants to have a major role in raising the profile of Unified Sports and Special Olympics programs in the area.

“With Unified sports, you pair these kids with regular ed kids, and they learn to compete together,” Wesselman said. “They learn to socialize together, and they learn to be a part of something. I’d love to help foster that aspect of it into something huge.”

Wesselman was involved in the “Aces for Autism” program last fall which also served as a kickoff point for the activities at RISE. She invited Trish McManus, the superintendent of Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools, to attend the final day of “Aces for Autism” and McManus obliged.

“She really liked what she was seeing and came up and asked me, ‘Can you do this with different sports?’” Wesselman said. “And I told her I would be happy to and sort of shared my idea with her. We have talked about maybe me doing this once I retire for the school system, so we’ll see what happens.”

Wesselman deemed the day a huge success. Ever the perfectionist, there are still things she would add or tweak for the next session, whenever that may be.

“I think they had a pretty good time out there today,” she said. “These kids, this is where my heart has been for the last 10 years or so. I love working with these kids. And I think their teachers have really enjoyed this to, especially to see them in a different light that they may be used to seeing them in school. The effort they give and the interaction you have with them is so pure.”