Henrico County VA
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Shooting stars


March madness was in full effect at Hermitage High School March 3. Panthers students and basketball fans, crammed together in the school's noisy gymnasium, rose to their feet with less than a minute remaining in a game against rival Freeman High.

With Hermitage clinging to a one-point lead, a Freeman player gathered a loose rebound and streaked the length of the court for a lay-up to put the Rebels back in front by one with less than 20 seconds remaining.

As the Panthers worked for a final shot, the crowd counted down each remaining second in unison.

"Seven. . . six. . . "

An attempted jump-shot fell unsuccessfully to the ground.

"Five. . . four. . . three. . . "

A Hermitage player rose the rebound, collected the ball and launched it toward the basket.

It fell safely through the net as time expired, giving the home team a thrilling 32-31 victory and prompting momentary delirium in the gymnasium, as students jumped up and down, some hugging each other and dancing in place, others storming the court to celebrate with the team.

That a high school basketball game might evoke such interest, passion and excitement among a school's student body is not remarkable; scenes like this one play themselves out across the nation thousands of times a year.

But that this game – played between two teams of exceptional education students as part of Henrico County's All-Star Basketball League – did so was, perhaps, an eye-opening reminder of the power of athletics, teamwork and inclusion.

'I made a basket'
David Kern admits that it can be difficult to keep the attention of his Deep Run High School students early in the week.

"On Monday and Tuesday," said Kern, who teaches students with disabilities, "it's hard to get anything done."

That's because his students know it's almost game time, and they're anxious to get on the court.

Kern and two fellow exceptional education teachers in Henrico (Freeman's Lourie Sledd and Tucker's Sallie Johnston) spearheaded the creation of the All-Star Basketball League four years ago as a way to provide an encouraging, fun outlet for their students, who suffer from mental or physical disabilities, and disabled students at other county high schools.

Henrico County had previously participated in the similar Medford League with other high schools in the region, but the trio believed their students would benefit from a less competitive league that placed more emphasis on participation than winning.

"We wanted it to be more child focused, where they get the feeling of, 'Wow, I made a basket,'" Sledd recalled. "We talked about it being just the spirit of. . . having fun, being with peers, being part of a group where they could compete in a sport in high school."

Participating Henrico schools include Deep Run, Freeman, Henrico, Hermitage, Highland Springs, Tucker and Varina; Hanover's Lee-Davis and Hanover High also are members of the league. Games are played weekly during the morning, and teachers often bring their classes to the gym to watch and cheer on their classmates.

Most teams wear the same basketball jerseys their school's boys' and girls' teams wear.

"For them to go to those schools where they see their peers playing sports, it's just huge," Sledd said of her students. "That's like the coolest thing ever."

Teams often give each player a nickname, and all players are introduced by name to the crowd before each game. Student and adult volunteers assist during games, serving as referees and helping players in wheelchairs or those with other physical ailments who need assistance getting up and down the court.

At Tucker High – described by Sledd and Kern as the model school for the league – students run the entire program. Home games are almost always packed with students cheering on both teams. Johnston admitted that she can't explain why mainstream students at Tucker embraced the program so quickly, but she's thrilled that they have.

"It brings out the best in all of them," she said.

Johnston enlisted the help of several varsity boys' basketball players four years ago to run drills with the All-Star team, and those players began bringing friends to assist. Now dozens of students are involved, serving as referees, coaches and on-court assistants.

"It's the most heartwarming thing I do in my work," Johnston said of her involvement with the league. "It's neat to see what students will do when you give them the chance."

'An honored group'
While the league has impacted the lives of students who play and those who assist with it, it's also had farther reaching impacts at the participating schools, according to those involved.

It "absolutely" has changed the way mainstream students interact with disabled students at Deep Run, Kern said.

"There's definitely more a sense of belonging," he said, describing how he has watched from afar as the two groups of students exchange hallway smiles and waves that are heartfelt.

"It's kind of cool to walk down the hall and not have a hand in interaction that's happening between our students and the general student population," Kern said. "It's genuine, natural interaction."

At Tucker, team members have experienced similar outcomes.

"It has certainly enlarged their social circles, and it's raised their confidence," Johnston said. "They're an honored group at Tucker."

Disabled students everywhere long to feel like they're part of something larger and that they fit into mainstream society with their peers, said Hermitage exceptional education teacher Karen Heldorfer, who oversees the Panthers' All-Star team.

"The recognition from their peers is what they crave," she said. "They want to feel like they're part of the school. It's something they look forward to, and it brings them a lot of joy. Our school embraces everyone – the stands are always filled with students there to support them."

The league has provided an opportunity for its players to grow on and off the court, as they learn to develop the type of skills they'll use after high school, too.

"A lot of these kids have played together for four years, they've learned teamwork, how to share the ball," Sledd said. "Some of them will get down to the basket and pass the ball, because they want their friend to get a basket. It's great to see how caring they are toward each other."

During play, students in wheelchairs sometimes shoot at a lower basket. It's not unusual for play to slow to allow for one student to attempt several shots in a row. Steals and blocks are not common, and scores are sometimes loosely kept so that the games are close throughout. Players develop self-confidence as they see what they're able to achieve on the court.

"My goal every year is, I want everybody on my team to make one shot," Kern said. "It means the world to them."

Said Sledd, "We've had kids who couldn’t cach a ball [initially], and in four years, they are running up and down the court. I've seen them grow and become athletes."

'When do we get to play?'
Following Hermitage's dramatic win earlier this month, players mobbed each other on the court, collapsing into a pile the way any team might in such a situation. Students were giddy with excitement, just as they would have been had their boys' or girls' basketball teams won in similar fashion.

Minutes later, when the celebration had died down and students had scattered toward their next classes, one Hermitage player emerged in the hallway outside the gym, a smile stuck wide on his face.

"We won," he said softly to no one in particular, as he peered back into the gym through the window on a door, seemingly wondering if the fantastic finish had been real. "We won!"

On that day, even for Freeman's players – some of whom were momentarily disappointed afterwards – the league was nothing but a winning experience, Sledd said.

"We've just seen the kids grow, from where they're really shy about it – afraid to get out there – to where they can't wait to get on the court," she said. "We've gotten a new student this week, and every day she's asking, 'When do we get to play basketball?'


Community

Agencies combine on new entry point to Chickahominy


Canoeing and kayaking enthusiasts soon will have a new access point to the Chickahominy River. VDOT, the James River Association and Henrico County Parks and Recreation are teaming up to establish a new site in Eastern Henrico.

The James River Association negotiated the deal with VDOT to procure official access to the area located just east of I-295 on North Airport Road in Sandston. The site includes a park-and-ride commuter lot bordering the Chickahominy River and has been an unofficial launch site used by paddlers for years. > Read more.

Equestrian clinic planned July 7-8 in Henrico

Henrico equestrians interested in deepening the bond between themselves and their horses have the opportunity to attend a two day clinic, held at Steppin’ High Stables on July 7-8 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The clinic, “Become Partners with your Horse,” will be taught by multiple world champion equestrienne Terry Preiser and will focus on how riders and horses can work together to achieve more. > Read more.

Henrico school bus driver honored

The Henrico-based Hephaestus Society recently awarded its first annual community heroes award (the Hephaestus Award) to Hicham Elgharouch (pictured, center) for what it termed his "selfless acts of caring" in his duties as a Henrico County Public Schools bus driver. Henrico County Director of Pupil Transportation Josh Davis, joined Hephaestus Society President Travis Gardner, in presenting the award and an accompanying $1,500 check to Elgharouch last month.

Elgharouch was selected for his clear and demonstrated patience and for his infectious positive attitude, according to the society. > Read more.

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Entertainment

Weekend Top 10


Don’t party too hard on the Fourth because a whole weekend of fun events await! Enjoy a classy date night without the kids at James River Cellars Winery’s second annual Smoke and Vine Festival. Another date night option is at the Richmond Funny Bone, where comedian April Macie will perform all weekend. The kids have their own options this weekend as well. Choose from storytime at Tuckahoe and Twin Hickory libraries or family-oriented karaoke at Aunt Sarah’s Pancake House – I hear they have hits from Disney’s “Frozen.” For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.

Restaurant watch

Find out how your favorite dining establishments fared during their most recent inspections by the Virginia Department of Health. > Read more.

Weekend Top 10


This weekend has something for everyone in your family – whether it’s improv comedy with ComedySportz or West End Comedy, or an inspirational concert from the Ezibu Muntu African Dance Company! Families will also enjoy music, games and crafts at Hidden Creek Park or reading to a therapy dog at Glen Allen Library. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.

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Ages 10-14 are invited to learn how to make a basic rubber band bracelet at 3 p.m. at Glen Allen Library, 10501 Staples Mill Rd. All materials will be provided.… Full text

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