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?'
Bail Bonds Chesterfield VA

Business in brief


The Jenkins Foundation has granted The McShin Foundation $25,000 for residential recovery services to serve those with a Substance Use Disorder. The Jenkins Foundation is focused on equitable access to health care services, as well as programs that help reduce risky behaviors and promote safe and healthy environments. The McShin Foundation was founded in 2004 and is Virginia's leading non-profit, full-service Recovery Community Organization (RCO), committed to serving individuals and families in their fight against Substance Use Disorders. > Read more.

Early voting for Democratic nominations in Brookland, 73rd House districts tonight


APR. 24, 11:10 A.M. – Henrico Democrats will hold an early voting session tonight from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in two party caucus elections.

Democrats in the county are selecting a nominee for the Brookland District seat on the Henrico Board of Supervisors and a nominee for the 73rd District seat in the Virginia House of Delegates.

Danny Plaugher, the executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail, and Courtney Lynch, the founder of the Lead Star leadership development organization, are seeking the Brookland District nomination. > Read more.

Crime Stoppers’ Crime of the Week: April 24, 2017


Crime Stoppers needs your help to identify the suspects who participated in a home invasion and robbery in the City of Richmond.

At approximately 2:33 A.M. April 12, four or five men forced their way through a rear door and into an apartment in the 1100 block of West Grace Street.

According to police, the suspects – one with a long gun and all but one in ski masks – bound the occupants with duct tape and robbed them of several items, including cash, mobile phones and a computer. > Read more.

HCPS named a ‘Best Community for Music Education’ for 18th straight year


For the 18th year in a row, Henrico County Public Schools has been named one of the best communities in America for music education by the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation. The school division has earned the designation in each year the group has given the awards.

The designation is based on a detailed survey of a school division’s commitment to music instruction through funding, staffing of highly qualified teachers, commitment to standards and access to music instruction. The award recognizes the commitment of school administrators, community leaders, teachers and parents who believe in music education and work to ensure that music education accessible to all students.
> Read more.

A safer way across


A project years in the making is beginning to make life easier for wheelchair-bound residents in Northern Henrico.

The Virginia Department of Transportation is completing a $2-million set of enhancements to the Brook Road corridor in front of St. Joseph's Villa and the Hollybrook Apartments, a community that is home to dozens of disabled residents. > Read more.
Community

YMCA event will focus on teen mental health


The YMCA, in partnership with the Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation and PartnerMD, will host a free event May 2 to help parents learn how to deal with teen mental health issues. “When the Band-Aid Doesn’t Fix It: A Mom’s Perspective on Raising a Child Who Struggles” will be held from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Shady Grove Family YMCA,11255 Nuckols Road. The event will focus on education, awareness, and understanding the issues facing teens today. > Read more.

Villa’s Flagler Housing wins national NAEH award


St. Joseph's Villa’s Flagler Housing & Homeless Services was one of three entities to earn the National Alliance to End Homelessness' Champion of Change Award. The awards were presented Nov. 17 during a ceremony at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

NAEH annually recognizes proven programs and significant achievements in ending child and family homelessness.

Flagler completed its transition from an on-campus shelter to the community-based model of rapid rehousing in 2013, and it was one of the nation's first rapid re-housing service providers to be certified by NAEH. > Read more.
Entertainment

Restaurant Watch


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

 

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Randy Johnston will perform at 8 p.m. at The Tin Pan, 8982 Quioccasin Rd. Johnston is one of the most widely recorded and prolific guitarists of his generation. In addition to releasing 12 albums, Johnston has toured and played with some of the most acclaimed names in jazz, including Lionel Hampton, Houston Person and Etta Jones. His live performances and last two recordings feature him as a vocalist as well, singing his original songs as well as standards and blues standards. Doors open at 6 p.m. Tickets are $10 in advance and $15 at the door. For details, call 447-8189 or visit http://www.tinpanrva.com. Full text

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