At Meadowbrook High School on Feb. 4, students packed the stands and music poured from the loudspeakers as the home team warmed up, preparing to take on rival Lloyd C. Bird High School.
The squeaking of the basketball shoes, quick beats of the drum line and hearty cheers made it easy to forget that it was actually a Thursday morning, and that an afternoon of classes awaited the special athletes and most of the spectators after the Medford League game’s end.
Special education teacher Lesa Welton, who’s in her fourth year with Medford League basketball, teaches students with a moderate level of intellectual disability. Welton said the Medford League was founded in the 1970s by a teacher in Henrico County “who wanted his students to have the same opportunities to play competitive sports as their peers.”
Now, Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield all have leagues, she said. Each team in the Chesterfield league plays eight games each year, she said, and it’s farthest flung opponent is Prince Edward County, which is working to establish its own league.
The students “go all out” for the games, said Richard Dunn, a teacher who works with juniors and seniors in Meadowbrook’s Academic Success Program. Generally, the school’s mascot is at the games, he said, and student spectators bring homemade signs. Some used their lunch period to watch part of the game Thursday, he said.
The league allows students with disabilities to play competitive sports, work on their athletic abilities and take part in the team atmosphere, like their peers, Welton said.
“They know what other students do and they want to have like activities,” she said. Students can participate at their level of ability, she said, and some are on the cheering squad or the pep squad. One student, who is in a wheel chair, is the team’s inbound passer, she said, and another student hands him the balls to throw in.
“That’s what he enjoys playing and he gets to be part of the team,” she said.
Before the game, Rosina Gilbert said her son, Deion, had been playing in the Medford League for three years.
“It’s a great program,” she said. “It’s great for the kids to be part of a team.”
The league also helps the schools’ general populations become aware of special needs students, Welton said.
Dunn said his students volunteer to help referee the games, run the cheering squad and help some of the special athletes during the games. The success program students also mentor and work with Welton’s students academically.
Courtney Matthews, a 17-year-old senior in the success program, said he came out to Thursday’s game to support the MoID program and watch the students play. Working with the students with special needs is “a good experience,” he said.
“From the success program mentors to the special needs population, it’s all about the students,” Welton said.
Coaches Drew Walker and George Cason adapted quickly to working with the students, she said, and the success program students are very respectful of the special students and their ability levels.
“We’re all learning together,” Welton said. “All the administration, faculty and staff at Meadowbrook have been very supportive and welcoming,” since this is her program’s first year at the school.
Not long after a cheer went up in the audience, Meadowbrook player and student Cristian Chuga approached Welton.
“Did you see the shot?” he asked.
“Yes. You’re the man,” she answered, as the two shared a high five.