When Jessica Carr had her son, Alex, by means of a Caesarean section procedure, he was three months premature, breached and attempted to come out feet first. He weighed just one pound. Doctors told Carr that Alex would not be able to walk, talk or even make it to his first birthday.
On Jan. 11, he celebrated his 12th birthday. He does fall under the autism spectrum while also being diagnosed with epilepsy and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which can explain why he is usually a very quiet preteen who doesn’t like to come out of his shell.
On the basketball court, however, Carr said she sees him become a completely different kid — more vocal and sometimes a little bossy with the phrase “I got this.”
Playing basketball under the Special Olympics program at Joint Base Lewis-McChord has provided an avenue where he can work on coordination, confidence and communication. On Tuesdays and Thursdays during the winter months, she takes both Alex and her younger son, Ryan, 7, to the JBLM Child, Youth and School Services gymnasium on Lewis Main to practices. She watches as a parent and as a coach.
“I love doing what I do, especially since I do it for my kids,” Carr said. “You have to communicate in basketball, and that helps them with making friends.”
While the basketball program is still developing a unified team to eventually play against others in the Southwest Region, the focus has been to provide a confidence-building activity for children and adults. For example, Cathy Fowler, 22, participated in Special Olympics teams through Tacoma’s Metro Parks for a few years before her parents learned about the JBLM program through a doctor at Madigan Army Medical Center.
In Tacoma, she was on a unified team, but she wasn’t confident in her skills. When she came to JBLM, her parents were happy to see that there were opportunities for her to focus on her individual skills. When she is ready, she can move up to team skills and possibly the unified team later on.
“It’s helped build her strength up, her coordination and it’s also helped being a team player,” said her father, Ricky, a retired Air Force technical sergeant. “Now she’s able to slow down and work on her skills and her confidence.”
While the overall head coach is Genia Stewart of CYSS, there are several parent coaches for each of the groups. Jim Newlander, a retired Army sergeant first class who finished his career at JBLM in 2004, has coached several Special Olympic sports on the installation.
He helps coach both of his sons, Anthony, 26, and Brandon, 10. Both have Down syndrome and a long list of other conditions. Sports has traditionally been a way for fathers to connect with their sons, but it isn’t the only reason Newlander participates. He could easily play basketball or football with them anytime he wants at home.
The focus on sportsmanship has drawn parents like
Newlander to become
involved with the JBLM Special Olympics program.
“It’s all about having fun and helping each other out,” Newlander said.
Basketball is just one of the many sports that CYSS offers through their Special Olympics program, known best as the JBLM Tigers. It is one of the more popular sports where special needs children participate in either individual skills, team skills or a unified team that combines Special Olympic athletes with peer models. There’s also a special group for ages 3 to 5 called Little Tigers.
JBLM CYSS is also trying to provide more opportunities and is currently one of a few pilot programs for Special Olympics cheerleading. The idea was brought up recently after Stacie Pogoncheff took her children down to see the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles.
Her son, Bryce, 12, plays basketball, and she wanted him to see the world finals. During the event, the family saw that there were unified cheerleading teams, which prompted Pogoncheff’s daughter, Stacie, 15, to ask why JBLM didn’t have its own team.
After speaking with Washington state officials, Pogoncheff learned there hadn’t been any. Because Washington’s Special Olympics likes to create programs from the ground up, JBLM is one of a few teams to build interest. If successful, there could be cheerleading competitions as soon as next year.
So far, Pogoncheff’s
daughter has led the group of eight girls — ranging between the ages of 8 and 16 — in
learning routines similar to the ones she learns as a sophomore at Lakes High School in Lakewood.
“She breaks them down so it’s easier to learn,” Pogoncheff said. “They go at a little bit slower pace so they can catch on.”
The cheerleading team is just another way that JBLM CYSS works to provide options for children to remain active while gaining important life skills. Knowing that it will have an impact is what makes the project one to take great pride in, Pogoncheff said.